Find a good map and you’ll see that Ethiopia sits on a similar latitude as Colombia, both firmly embedded in the tropics. Moreover, being the 26th largest country in the world, this African nation is almost the same size as Colombia.
Fortunately for its inhabitants, a large part of its territory includes the high Ethiopian massif, a mountain range system soaring between 1500 and 3000 metres above sea level, boasting blessed fertile lands. This explains why some of its most important products are – once again similar to Colombia – coffee, beans and sugar cane. If that’s not enough to ignite your curiosity, here’s another fact: the capital, Addis Ababa, stands 2400 metres above sea level (much like Bogotá, located ‘2600 metres closer to the stars’).
On arriving in Addis, visitors are confronted with a simply massive urban chaos. Although it’s a city of 4 million people, it still lacks a decent mass transport system. The only two real options for tourist mobility are the ‘taxis’ or the ‘contract taxis’. The former refers to shabby minibuses that pick up and drop off passengers along certain short routes. The latter are old cars in even worse mechanical condition, but which on average charge 4500 per cent more to cover the same distances (although of course you don’t have to share the ride with other passengers). Needless to say, the black clouds of pollution emitted by these two modes have serious negative impacts on the quality of urban life.
Still, the overall situation is not necessarily bad. The high density of taxis and minibuses reflects the precarious individual motorization characteristics of Ethiopia. With only 3 cars per 1000 inhabitants in the country, and 1 car for every 25 people in the capital, walking remains the major mode of urban transport in this the second-most populous nation on the African continent. Indeed, almost half of all daily trips are made on foot in Addis Ababa. Moreover (and incredibly), during my seven days there I counted just three motorcycles. This translates into a huge opportunity to promote sustainable mobility alternatives (bikes as well as clean, modern and safe collective transport) before automotive marketing geniuses take over the country.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly foreigners who promote the false idea of the car and urban road infrastructure as ‘symbols of development’. Being the undisputed diplomatic capital of Africa, Addis is home to several UN agencies, to hundreds of representatives from Western agencies, who insist on telling the world how to achieve their ‘development’ (World Bank, USAID, etc.). There are also thousands of temporary representatives to the African Union, now set in a colossal modernist building constructed (and paid for) by the Chinese government.
These foreign officials drive around the capital, barely without exception, in the latest oversized cars. They insist on building monstrous road interchanges, images of which end up proudly printed on the covers of local tourist books.
The capital of Ethiopia suffers from the same urban disease as many other developing countries. Although the sad lessons in transport planning of North American cities have established that a car-dependent model is anachronistic, we still prefer motorized cities to human cities, while endorsing a concept of ‘development’ defined for us by others, far too long ago.
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 5 November 2012. Images: Flickr Matt Saunders / Golden Danish 86 / T and A Gulick. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.