Rebecca Chaster is one of our CIDA / IYIP interns who is just finishing up a 6-month placement in Dakar, Senegal, where her work focused on Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
As a fully licensed, (almost) accident free, nine-years-experienced Canadian driver, the rules of the road in Dakar remain a mystery to me.
By all accounts, this dusty West African city has been without functioning traffic lights for the past ten years, attributable to a combination of frequent electricity outages, lack of maintenance by the City, and traffic lights as the unfortunate target of political demonstrations against the government. In the result, encounters on the road often seem to involve a dangerous game of vehicular chicken, where rights of way are unclear or ignored and the ‘winner’ is the one who brakes last. Add to this a rapidly-expanding population, infamous traffic jams, open and overflowing sewers, sandy streets, fickle electricity, packed busses, haphazard construction jobs, billowing clouds of smog, and garbage, garbage, everywhere, and you get the capital of Senegal.
I love it. While it is nothing like my uber-clean West Coast Canadian hometown, every day in Dakar is a study in stimulation and sensory overload. Taking public transportation, where you’ll often find yourself packed in like sardines and lurching along pot-holed streets while baking in 35+ºC heat, is one of the most invigorating experiences my sheltered North American life has known. The region’s population continues to grow as people flock to the city from the countryside – adding more stress to already-stretched infrastructure, services, and resources, not to mention more challenges for the City’s urban planning department. I have been working in that department for the past six months, learning about how urban planning happens (or doesn’t) at the municipal level in Dakar. And I have been fascinated by how traffic is regulated (or isn’t) in this city.
Traffic regulation and attitudes have, I can only assume, been adapted to accommodate for the absence of working traffic lights. In 2010, Dakar’s new Mayor started a nominally compensated “volunteer” program for five hundred unemployed Dakarois youth, aimed at getting them off the streets and working on projects for the City. One such project is directing traffic at lightless intersections, a role which is shared with the national police force. This system does work effectively, but only under the following two important conditions: a) volunteers or police are actually stationed at intersections, and b) they at least attempt to direct traffic, rather than simply observing the relative insanity all around them. Unfortunately, the ideal combination of these conditions is not consistently met. And so ensues the thrilling ‘game’ of vehicular chicken.
In the context of a project funded by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the City is working to create an automated, centrally managed traffic lights system, the on-site side of which involves re-erecting traffic lights throughout the city. For the past few months traffic lights, complete with pedestrian signals, have been appearing on street corners, but few save those in the downtown core are as yet functional. The inner skeptic in me thought these lights might have little impact on traffic flows in Dakar, unfamiliar as they are in this city and easily swallowed up in the cacophony of sights and sounds that dominate here. My inner skeptic was fabulously wrong. In my limited experience with the downtown’s functional traffic lights, they are being respected by drivers, and I watch in eager anticipation as the network expands into other neighbourhoods.