By Elyse Wurm
Once upon a time the choo–chooing and chuff-chuffing of passing steam locomotives was one of the common scenes of Addis Ababa. Though the trains are no longer functioning and have been replaced modern ones, the main station in the heart of Addis still harks back to the old days of a gradually growing city.
So, who is credited for the introduction of rail transport in Ethiopia? Well, it is none other than Menelik II. It was on February 11, 1893 that the Emperor, who is widely remembered for modernizing Ethiopia, granted a Swiss engineer named Alfred Ilg the concession of a railway.
The railway was operated by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Ethiopiens, which later became the Ethio-Djibouti railways company. The main train station in Addis, still called LaGare and still a landmark in the city centre, was designed by French architect Paul Barrias according to the French style of the time, and inaugurated in 1929.
Today the line has been suspended and the train is left without use but La Gare is far from being something of the distant past.
The LaGare Junction was given a splash of colour this week but the new artwork serves a much higher purpose than just good looks.
As part of the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI), LaGare Junction was redesigned to enhance its people-moving capacity with a focus on making it safer and easier for pedestrians to traverse the busy intersection.
At the launch ceremony on Monday, Genetu Boshe, general manager at the Traffic Management Agency in Addis Ababa, Skye Duncan, director of GDCI, Abhimanyu Prakash, program associate at GDCI, and around 150 members of the public joined together to celebrate the transformation.
Duncan explained that the focus of the project was to shift attention away from motorists and onto the safety of pedestrians.
“For too many years we’ve been designing streets for cars and cars alone. We’ve developed streets where people have to risk their lives to go to work or go to school.”
This system has seen 400 people die and 2000 people sustain serious injuries in Addis Ababa as a result of a road accident. But these figures are not unique to Addis Ababa. Around the world, approximately 1.2 million people die on the roads every year. That equates to approximately one death every 30 seconds.
“These deaths are preventable and we know what to do to prevent them,” Duncan said.
GDCI was launched in October 2014 to help combat this issue in cities across the globe. Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and a network of international partner organisations including the National Association of City Transportation Officials and Vital Strategies, the GDCI focuses on capacity-building and training to help create safer streets for all road users, whether they’re on foot, on bikes or in cars.
Twenty cities around the world submitted an application to take part in the Initiative, which involved demonstrating a desire to receive technical expertise from international partners and a commitment to improving road safety.
Addis Ababa was one of the ten cities chosen by the selection committee at Bloomberg Philanthropies to move forwards with the program. Other cities selected included Bogota, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Accra.
The project in Addis Ababa focuses on transforming traditional road usage to better accommodate the growing number of pedestrians in the city. Transportation in Addis Ababa is already comprised of 70 percent pedestrians and only 4 percent motorists. Walking may be the city’s main form of transport, but cars still remain the largest consideration for road design.
The recent work at LaGare Junction aims to reverse this focus. The bold geometric design, which was created using 750L of paint and 120 planters, has made the crossing much more pedestrian-friendly without compromising the movement of vehicles.
Pedestrians now have access to 4 new direct pedestrian crossings which have reduced crossing distances from approximately 50m to two stints of 9.5m with a safe refuge space in between. Over 2000 sq.m of public space has also been reclaimed for safe use by pedestrians.
“It’s very good for pedestrians because the pedestrian crossing is specified so they can cross without any problem,” Fitsum Birhane, Traffic Law Control and Supervising at the Federal Transport Authority, said at the launch on Monday. “The distance is shortened and the pedestrians can cross in a straight line. Also, vehicles can drive in lanes in a straight line.”
The transformation was the result of collaboration between 5 city agencies, 3 local academic institutions and community support. Planning started in 2015, with kick-off meetings being held for the city agencies, City Government, Bloomberg Philanthropy and international partner organisations involved in the Global Designing Cities Initiative. The aim of the meetings was to devise a work plan for creating safer streets throughout the entire city, outlining where attention would be best spent and how to effectively implement changes.
This year, the focus has been on implementing this work plan with LaGare Junction acting as a starting point.
One of the academic institutions involved in the project was Addis Ababa University’s School of Fine Arts and Design, who were responsible for the concept and execution of the vibrant artwork.
Behailu Bezabih, the Lecturer in New Media, organised the work alongside Yacob Bizuneh, the Lecturer in Painting, and 10 students from the graduating class.
Bezabih said the students were pleased to participate in the transformation.
“The project is really a new idea, a new concept and when I told my students they were really challenged but then they were very happy to participate and do the work.”
Through collaboration and synchronisation of different sketches, the students developed a concept that incorporates different Ethiopian and African motifs to truly represent the people of Addis Ababa. The circles featured in the work reflect Ethiopian houses, food and churches, whilst the diamonds and zig zags are representative of the symbols found on traditional Ethiopian clothing, masks and paintings.
Bezabih was thrilled to participate in the first project of this kind in Ethiopia and believed it was great for the artist community.
“For our students also, it was exposure, it was good exposure, and it was a good challenge for them doing the collaboration work. They play their role as a citizen to do their work there, also the contribution as an artist is really good.”
The structural changes made to the intersection were based on thorough research into the environment and natural movement of people around LaGare Junction. Information was gathered through time lapse cameras, physical observation and surveys to better understand the needs and preferences of those using the area.
“Our focus is looking at how we make the infrastructure of the city support the default movements of human beings,” Duncan said.
A popup event was then held in July of this year, where the designs were marked out on the road in removable chalk and observations were made as to how the new design influenced traffic flow and pedestrians.
When it became apparent that there was still ample room for vehicles to manoeuvre around the intersection, and the design greatly reduced the distance pedestrians needed to travel across the busy streets, the decision was made to make the redesign a more long-term fixture at LaGare Junction.
The project is estimated to have cost USD 18,000 of which around half was contributed by the Bloomberg partners supporting the GDCI and the other half was obtained from the city budget. A key focus of the Initiative is to assist cities to develop the right projects so that existing funds devoted to transportation can be used in efficient and valuable ways.
If the transformation receives the required support, the next phase will be undertaking construction to create permanent infrastructure.
Results from other cities involved in the Global Designing Cities Initiative indicate that implementing changes such as the one in LaGare Junction could be extremely positive for the environment, public health and the economy.
By creating new pedestrian areas in Times Square and Herald Square in New York, there was a 35 percent decrease in pedestrian injuries, 11 percent increase in pedestrian volume in Times Square and 63 percent decrease in injuries to motorists and passengers across the whole project area.
A new work plan is currently in development for 2017 to continue the work started at LaGare Junction. Four local staff have been appointed to oversee key areas including transport, enforcement and communication. GDCI will also be providing support for at least the next three years.
The focus will remain on capacity-building and training to ensure safe mobility around Addis Ababa is achieved through the combined effort of local city agencies, academic institutions, consultant groups and law enforcement. The safety and needs of people on the city streets will always be the first priority.
As Duncan said, “We must design streets that put human beings, that put people, first.”
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.