Rural roads in Ethiopia: Can they be designed differently to accommodate all road users?

I was recently travelling in the East Welega Zone of Ethiopia to visit some research sites for an agroforestry project. In this area a number of new roads were being built, funded by the German government and constructed by Chinese contractors. These new roads include asphalting and widening previously gravel/dirt roads, as well as building new bridges, cuttings and drainage systems.

One thing that struck me about these new roads was the relative lack of traffic, at least of the motor vehicle variety. The roads were certainly being used, but primarily by pedestrians, livestock and horse drawn carts. This situation results in numerous hazards and safety concerns when combined with high speed vehicles.

Rural road in Ethiopia- Not a great picture but you can see the lack of a paved road shoulder and in the distance pedestrians walking on the main part of the road.

This is a newly built rural road in Ethiopia. Not a great picture but you can see the lack of a paved road shoulder and in the distance pedestrians walking on the main part of the road (Click on the image to view it in full size).

I couldn’t help but wonder if these roads could be better designed to take into account the local context.

Rural roads are undoubtedly important. They help increase access to economic opportunities and services, reduce travel times, make communities more accessible, and in the case of informal settlements, can boost their legitimacy and make them more integrated with their local region, amongst other benefits.

However, the apparent lack of consideration for the predominate traffic mode share in rural areas is somewhat perplexing and seems to favour those few who have access to a motor vehicle over those traveling on foot or by animal power. This is especially true in most parts of rural Ethiopia where car ownership is very low and unlikely to increase anytime soon, unless the rural areas were to undergo a dramatic transformation away from smallholder farming systems.

But how, if all at, could rural roads be designed differently to better accommodate pedestrians, livestock and animal-powered vehicles?

An online search discovered little in the way of alternative or innovative approaches to road design or traffic management and safety in rural areas in Africa (that is not to say they don’t exist I just couldn’t find any). However, I did find a few relevant resources.

A recently published good practice guide for the design of ‘Low Volume Rural Roads’, funded by DFID, provides some useful advice and guidelines for designing rural roads. It also emphasizes the importance of considering all roads users including pedestrians and animal-powered vehicles, the latter often referred to as ‘Intermediate Means of Transport’.

However, the primary design feature it recommended was the use of wide shoulders on roads to enable pedestrians or animals to use the road without impeding traffic. This would undoubtedly require significant additional expenditure as it would entail building a wider road with more asphalt. Given that many roads in rural Ethiopia have not included wide shoulders in the design, this may not be a very feasible or affordable solution. And it would not stop livestock from wandering into the middle of the road and causing traffic hazards anyway.

Another option, suggested in a similar online resource, is to segregate vehicles from pedestrians and livestock through the use of:

  • rumble dividers on road shoulders;
  • separated walkways on bridges; and/or
  • fencing along roadsides.

However, once again these measures would be costly to implement.

So if roads cannot be engineered (or re-engineered) drastically differently, then alternative options should be explored.

For example, the establishment of designated lanes or crossing points for livestock and pedestrians at regular intervals could help reduce the risk of accidents by providing safe crossing points. These might be difficult to police and enforce in remote areas like rural Ethiopia and the existing pedestrian crossings are rarely observed. But if the local community had an active role in the regulation of such designated crossing points/lanes then the level of compliance by all road users is likely to be higher and could help reduce the risk of accidents. The cost of implemented such zones would be also relatively low compared to the other measures described above as it should only require the installation of signs, road lines/markers, and potentially speed bumps or rumble strips.

Another similar approach could be the development of Local Road Safety Plans, which are being used in parts of North America. They are defined as: a locally focused plan addressing the unique conditions that contribute to safety problems and assist local practitioners in making informed safety investment decisions. This approach could be tailored to the specific context in rural Ethiopia and the solutions identified through this process may include the use of designated crossing points too.

Perhaps even an investigation into the past, when horses and motor vehicles were both common forms of transport on roads, could identify potential ideas that could be revamped and reinvented for the present day rural Ethiopia?


It is undoubtedly a complex issue to improve safety on rural roads in Ethiopia. But with some creativity and the active involvement of local communities, I think some innovative and low-cost strategies could be successfully developed to improve road safety. This would surely be better than the current situation which is largely reliant on drivers noticing pedestrians, livestock and animal-powered vehicles in time to slow down and/or to alert them to the approaching vehicle in order to avoid a collision. And with Ethiopia currently having some of the highest road accidents rates in the world, there is undoubtedly a need for new ideas and a fresh approach to improve this situation.

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2 Responses to Rural roads in Ethiopia: Can they be designed differently to accommodate all road users?

  1. raisamirza says:

    Interesting post! Definitely something that I have pondered over the past few weeks traveling to-and-fro very rural areas in the Amhara Region. The new road that connects Debre Zeit and Addis Ababa was opened a few months ago to some fanfare- it is a replica of highways in developed countries and a very good toll road. However, there is a huge fence which blocks people and livestock from accessing it. I’m surprised that this question of design has not been addressed in most majority world countries where road construction is on-going. Yes, roads are roads but surely there is a utilitarian design that could be used to benefit more people and to maintain access to create more functioning economies?

    • Adrian Young says:

      The new expressway is obviously a good way to move traffic between the regional cities, yet the impacts of this piece on infrastructure on the mobility of local communities and livestock would be interesting to assess. In Australia they build tunnels under the highways to enable livestock to cross safely, so not sure if anything like this has been constructed in Ethiopia as yet.

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