Sustainable transport in African cities: Challenges and opportunities through the 15-minute city planning approach

by Nikola Medimorec with inputs by Bianca Ryseck, Cabrel Tokam, Fatoumata Diallo, Richard Unuigboje and Robert Ambunda

Achieving a safe, efficient, low carbon, and affordable mobility and transport system can be enabled through more efficient planning concepts that prioritise proximity and land-use planning guidance. An example of such a concept is the 15-minute city. This concept is growing in prominence and it provides benefits such as increased and more equitable access to economic and social needs in cities. Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo introduced in 2020 the paradigm of the 15-minute city. It was a response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The basic principle is to allow citizens to access essential needs within 15 minutes by cycling or walking.

Examples beyond Paris are Portland’s 20-minute neighbourhoods, Singapore’s 20-minute towns and 45-minute city and Barcelona’s superblocks. However, these examples are from the Global North. The next section describes challenges in applying such an approach to the Global South, focusing on African cities.

“Such approaches tend to be turned into an empty shell if spread without content, sincere objectives and realistic possibilities.”
Fatoumata Diallo

Challenges faced in African cities

The implementation of compact cities and people-oriented mobility faces several challenges in many African cities: The current trend of rapid urbanisation in Africa often results in sprawl. People moving towards cities are settling in the outskirts and travel long distances to the centre where most of the economic activity takes place. Some cities lack the capacity to manage the growth. Inadequate or non-existent zoning regulations can in many cases hinder compact cities where the priority lies in mixed uses.

“In order to shift our attention to walking cities emphasising proximity, it means that Lagos and other African cities have to reorganise space which takes a lot of commitment and political will.”
Richard Unuigboje

Urban development projects might often cater towards high-income groups and result in the displacement of low-income households. It is vital to apply equity as a lens for projects and to consult the local population in the planning process, but the procedures in African cities rarely embrace extensive stakeholder consultation and equity.

“Accessing a city is not a matter of choice for most people, it becomes a matter of survival as most of the inhabitants have to be in the city centre. And they have to travel for hours in order to access jobs or other needs.”
Robert Ambunda

A major issue connected to the points above is the lack of governance. Urban development is being done in a chaotic manner in many cases. The coordination between the different city departments is missing. Similar as the example of Paris shows, leadership is a crucial element. A progressive mayor with a strong vision can initiate a long-term transformation of a city. Local authorities can be further supported by national urban mobility plans, a framework which is still unusual in Africa.

Opportunities for sustainable urban mobility

African cities have key features that support the scale up of sustainable transport. The population is young and moves to live in urban settings. They have a strong need for access to education and jobs. A large share of urban dwellers walk (up to 70% in some cities), even despite a lack of adequate walking environment. In addition, informal transport serves as a type of collective transport in cities. 

“It’s important to think about what people’s capabilities are in terms of those facilities within 15-minute reach.”
Bianca Ryseck

More cities are moving towards a people-centred development approach. Good practices are Dar es Salaam’s bus rapid transit system, Kampala’s cycling infrastructure, Addis Ababa’s walking and cycling strategy among many others. Open street events are being held in Kigali, Cape Town and several Ethiopian cities.

“We should start to think about the shared prosperity in our cities and about the opportunities of transforming transport.”
Cabrel Tokam

A comprehensive approach for better mobility

Compact city development and the 15-minute city planning approach are ultimately concepts embracing a comprehensive means to tackle land use, mobility and access. To implement the concept in the transport sector, the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework, which is seen as an integrated, inter-modal and balanced action framework, is an essential approach. It can unleash the full benefits of sustainable, low carbon transport for more liveable, less polluting cities. 

This blog article was written by Nikola Medimorec with inputs by Bianca Ryseck, Cabrel Tokam, Fatoumata Diallo, Richard Unuigboje and Robert Ambunda. It is based on the fireside chat about sustainable urban transport challenges and opportunities in African cities with the 2021/22 participants of the SLOCAT-VREF Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport programme.