11th November 2021

The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development in late September 2021 announced Government’s plans to construct two additional bus stations, one behind Levy Junction Mall and the other along Kafue Road, to decongest Lusaka City’s central business district (CBD). Although it pales in comparison to other African cities like Lagos and Nairobi, Lusaka’s traffic congestion has been on the rise, driven by rapid growth in motorisation, inadequate sustainable transport infrastructure, insufficient traffic management and substandard public transport systems. Lusaka’s public transport system, characterised by several, largely unregulated private operators, has been known to contribute to congestion with significant traffic jams occurring in close proximity to the City’s major bus stations, all located in the CBD. It is against this background that the Minister is calling for the construction of more bus stations to ease congestion.

Bus stations, while playing an essential role in urban transport management, can themselves contribute to traffic congestion, more so when they are not suitably located. Broadly speaking, having more than one bus station in the heart of the CBD can cause severe traffic congestion especially when they facilitate the movement of a large number of buses, as is the case in Lusaka’s CBD. A 2019 survey of public bus stations in Lusaka reveals that the number of bus flows to and from the capital city’s major bus stations are remarkably high. Combined, City Market, Millennium, Kulima Tower and Lumumba bus stations were clearing approximately 16,050 bus movements in a day, at the time of the survey. The result is several buses traversing the CBD at any given time. And at peak times, the entrances and exits of these bus stations are traffic-jammed resulting in longer travel times, overall. To avoid being stuck in this congestion, most operators take to unloading and loading passengers from outside the stations, causing obstruction to the normal flow of traffic, thus perpetuating congestion. Lusaka’s main bus stations have clearly reached capacity hence the call for more bus stations.

However, the situation within and around Lusaka’s main bus stations speaks largely to the lax regulation and management of public bus services, which has left room for “self-regulation”. Intra-city bus operators are currently not sufficiently monitored as they are often free to decide where and when they wish to go. The quality of service is also left to the wits of the bus crew, but at a cost to passengers who frequently have to wait long periods at the station until buses are fully loaded.  Further, buses are added to the market with no limits as operating licenses are routinely issued on operators’ requests with little regard for the demand-supply balance. This has led to over-capacity and inappropriate competition with drivers resorting to aggressive and often dangerous tactics such as racing to bus stations or deliberately obstructing other buses, to maximise their passenger loads. These practices not only create bottlenecks but are also hazards on the City’s roads which contribute to the congestion. Left unchecked, excessive wait times, inappropriate driving practices, unlimited licensing of operators and generally poor management will continue to congest the City’s roads indefinitely.

From the foregoing, it is clear that the reasons behind Lusaka City’s congestion woes are much more complex than simply “crowded bus stations”, although that is certainly a key part of the problem. Building additional stations will in the short-term offer some level of relief from congestion as some buses will move from existing bus stations to these new stations. However, in the long-term, there is a risk that this measure may create new bottlenecks around the new stations, especially if the management of bus services remains the same. The old adage of a fat man loosening his belt to cure obesity applies here as the new stations will quickly fill-up particularly if licensing of new operators remains as liberal as it is now. Put simply the cure for Lusaka’s congestion woes is not more bus stations alone, but rather firmer and thorough regulation.

Much as building more bus stations will to some extent ease congestion in Lusaka City’s CBD, it is not going to be the one single answer.  The solutions contained in the bankable proposal for “Decongesting Lusaka City” which is already on the shelves of the Ministry of Local Government, offer a more holistic approach to managing congestion in the city. The proposal includes measures to improve not only infrastructure but traffic management and service quality. In addition to improving existing bus stations and improving selected intersections in the city, authorities should control overcrowding by reorganise bus routes and assigning buses to specific routes to match supply to demand. The authorities should further set and enforce service standards and improve the efficiency of bus services through controlled competition. More importantly, the authorities need to follow through with their plans to switch to higher-occupancy buses. Lastly, the city should establish a public transport authority to coordinate planning, regulation, licensing, inspections, monitoring and enforcement of transport services.

By: Malindi Msoni

The author is a researcher at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, MNDP Complex, Cnr John Mbita & Nationalist Roads, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: info@zipar.org.zm