A Traffic Solution Tries to Outrun Its Negative Image

Accra | 01/23/2013 3:51pm
Sharon Benzoni | Informal City Dialogues

Accra’s okada drivers, ready to hit the road. Photo credit: Sharon Benzoni

Prince One and Prince Two are good guys to know if you want to transform your 60-minute rush-hour crawl into a ten-minute beeline home. Befitting their nicknames, they both ride a brand of small, inexpensive Chinese motorbike called a Royal. On a typical afternoon, there are perhaps 40 of these bikes parked conspicuously along a triangle behind Accra’s Central Post Office.

This is where you come if you need okada, the swarms of informal motorbike taxis that buzz through Accra’s daunting traffic jams with remarkable dexterity. At four in the afternoon, only one or two of the bikes have a rider stationed on them. But by five o’clock, young men wearing helmets are sitting astride most of them, waiting for passengers to climb on the back so they can zoom off, disappearing into the sea of buses and cars.

Most days are like this, says Prince One, appearing extra short and stocky next to the tall and lanky Prince Two. The okada riders, he says, arrive around six in the morning, work until ten a.m., then take a short rest and return in the mid-afternoon to continue working until seven or eight in the evening. There are around 65 of them in this area, he says. On a good day, he might make 50 or 60 cedis ($25 or $30 USD). A trip from here to Winneba, a suburb on the northwest edge of the city, costs about 20 cedis ($10 USD).

A commute that would take an hour by taxi or bus can take 10 minutes by okada. Photo credit: Sharon Benzoni

Okada is an informal solution to a serious problem. In a city whose physical area has tripled in size while its population density has doubled over a 15-year period, the development of transportation infrastructure has not kept up. Throw in a recent car-buying binge fueled by an unexpected economic boom, and you have a city where traffic congestion has become horrendous. Vehicle ownership has surged and private cars and taxis take up half the road space even though 70 percent of trips within the city are made by some form of bus, according to a recent paper by University of Ghana professors Martin Oteng-Ababio and Ernest Agyemang. Commute times have soared and long lines for buses have become the norm.

Enter Prince One and Prince Two, knights-errant for the Accra commuter. Oteng-Ababio and Agyemang’s research shows that there is no wait time for okada transport at major stations, and transit time is consistently lower than buses, trotros (Accra’s informal minibuses) or private vehicles. According to their study, many people use the okada system to travel from nearby Korle-Bu Hospital to pharmacies in the Central Business District. This two-kilometer stretch, covered in minutes by okada, can take an hour by taxi.

But getting okada drivers to admit they’re the city’s saviors can be difficult. “It’s not okada!” insists a young man named Eric who’s wearing a helmet and standing amid a sea of motorbikes that are clearly okada. “We see people who may be stranded and we help them,” he explains. His reticence springs from the fact that okada has become the center of a contentious public debate in Accra. Technically it’s illegal, and there’s evidence to suggest that motorbikes on the roads can increase the number of accidents. (Many of the operators don’t provide helmets for their passengers, either.) But the most formidable stigma may be the common perception that motorcycle riders are thieves: drive-by purse snatchers and muggers who swipe iPhones from pedestrians before tearing off into the night. One police officer who Oteng-Ababio and Agyemang spoke with reportedly said, “The frequency with which motorbikes have been used to commit crimes in the country means that the country will not be safe if the okada business is regularized.”

In February of 2011, 500 okada riders protested for the legalization of their business, but their efforts went nowhere. Their motorcycles are sometimes seized by police, and if they are caught operating, they’re often forced to pay a bribe or lose their bike. A typical bribe, Eric tells me, would be 15 to 20 cedis, or approximately half a day’s wages.

Ironically, however, okada is also just the type of job to keep young men from turning to crime. The World Bank estimates that Ghana’s youth unemployment rate is 65 percent. Prince One, only 24 years old, already has three young children, two daughters and a newly arrived son. He got married at age 20, and he worries about being able to pay his school fees. He apprenticed with an electrician for several years and wants to own a shop where he can do electrical work and sell equipment. And he has a bank account where he keeps his savings. “With Fidelity Bank,” he says.

Many drivers use Chinese-made Royal bikes for their affordability. Okada offers young men a chance to start a business with low start-up costs. Photo credit: Sharon Benzoni

Okada is an attractive option for young men like the two Princes because the work is lucrative and start-up costs are low – a typical bike and helmet costs $500 to $1500 USD. Fuel and maintenance, too, are very inexpensive. Most okada riders don’t have any formal education beyond secondary school, and more than 70 percent are between the ages of 20 and 40. And there’s plenty of room for the sector to grow: unlike northern Ghana, where motorcycles are ubiquitous, or neighboring Togo with its floods of moto taxis, Accra still has relatively few motorcycles on its roads, commercial or otherwise.

All the okada riders at this junction are men or boys in their twenties or early thirties, and most of them are Ga, the ethnic group indigenous to Accra, particularly this area, Jamestown, and neighboring Osu. Oteng-Ababio and Agyemang also found that many of the riders are from the northern part of Ghana, where motorbikes have long been an important part of the social fabric. Interestingly, even though most of the okada riders are young men with no formal employment, some, they found, are well-educated public-sector employees supplementing their incomes as the cost of living in Accra skyrockets.

“Until and unless a more sustainable public transport system…has been implemented to address the bottlenecks in Accra’s current urban transport output, the Okada transport will continue to survive despite the seemingly entrenched and ill-informed official position and crackdowns,” argue Oteng-Ababio and Agyemang. “The majority of commuters have found much relief in Okada services and wish the system were legalized and properly monitored to ensure their safety.”

A little before 5 p.m., a young man called Nana Yaw pulls up, sporting a conspicuous silver marijuana leaf dangling from a heavy metal chain over his black Harley Davidson t-shirt. “This is a real rasta guy!” Eric says. Nana Yaw smiles, revealing a gleaming silver tooth. “Yah, man,” he says, affecting a Jamaican accent.

Prince One offers me a ride home, and I climb on the back and take a deep breath, trying not to think about my unprotected head and the fact that I’m wearing not my usual riding jeans and jacket but a light skirt and blouse. He curves around the corner, entering High Street, and I can feel the sea breeze pulling at the strands of my hair. Independence Square’s larger-than-life arches and statues and fountains swim by on my right as we circle the roundabout and plunge into the back streets of Osu. Behind the stadium he points: “This is where I got trouble,” referring to an accident he’d had over the weekend when his bike was seized by police. It’s already past four, so as soon as we hit Liberation Avenue, we find ourselves in a crush of traffic. He darts down one of the magic middle lanes just wide enough for a motorcycle, honking to warn pedestrians and cars to give us space. Near the Canadian High Commission, we jump up onto the sidewalk to get around a tight spot. I pull in my knees as we pass between the high walls formed by two semi trucks.Emerging on the other side, free of cars, Prince One opens up the engine and we speed home.

Sharon is a journalist and writer based in Accra. Follow her on Twitter @SharonBenzoni