Last weekend, I was sitting on a bus in San Diego, California, on my way to an attraction called Balboa Park, famous for its museums, art galleries, gardens, zoo and funfair. I find that public transport is the best way to discover a city because it gives you a real sense of the quality of life that’s available for the average citizen. Thus far, the indications were good – the bus had arrived at the advertised time; my $5.00 all-day transit card swiped effortlessly when I boarded; the interior was clean, bright and comfortable; and an automated voice announced the name of each stop, well before arrival.
About halfway into my journey, something unremarkable happened and yet it struck me deeply as it unfolded. A disabled man in an electric wheelchair wanted to board the bus, triggering a series of actions by the driver. First, he lowered an automatic ramp to the sidewalk, allowing the man to glide through the doors. Next, he pulled a lever to flip three seats out of the way and create space for the chair. Lastly, he pulled a couple of cables from the floor and hooked them to the wheelchair, making it totally secure. All of this happened in less than a minute, indicating that this was a regular occurrence, for which the bus was equipped and the driver trained. While I watched keenly, no one else was the slightest bit interested.
So, why did I find this routine event so absorbing? Maybe it’s because I have spent so much time away from the UK, US and other developed countries that I’ve forgotten how much is done to improve the lives of ordinary people in those societies. It got me thinking about what it means to be ‘developed’, as a country or a society, and I decided I would spend the rest of my time in San Diego ‘living ordinary’ and seeing what happened. Here’s what I found.
I wandered around Balboa Park, taking photos as soon as I arrived and enjoying the beauty of the surroundings – expansive lawns, water fountains, period buildings, street performers, live music and a huge choice of museums and galleries. Realising that it would take more than half a day, I selected my targets carefully – the Museum of Art, Natural History Museum, Contemporary Art Gallery, outdoor café, children’s theatre and various courtyards and gardens. Thousands of local and visiting families were doing exactly the same thing – seeking their regular dose of art, culture and recreation. The park was spotlessly clean, meticulously maintained and efficiently run by friendly, considerate staff. The buildings were stunning examples of Spanish Colonial architecture, made popular when San Diego was a part of Mexico, and built 100 years ago.
As the sun was setting, I went in search of refreshment and decided on a charming open-air café with a brilliant band playing jazz classics. The menu catered for adults, children, vegans, Muslims and the lactose-intolerant, with the type of food you might get in a pricier city-centre restaurant. Afterwards, I headed back across the park, now twinkling with thousands of festive lights, and caught the bus back to my hotel. I had an amazing experience, including lunch, for less than $25 and it would have been far less if I had taken advantage of discounts available for students, seniors and military personnel.
With my flight only four hours away, I was tempted to get a taxi straight to the airport; however, I was determined to see the day through with my $5 transit card. Armed with clear directions and a pocket map from the concierge, I pulled my suitcase across the street to the trolley (tram, if you’re British) station. I just missed one but, sure enough, another trolley arrived exactly 15 minutes later. We slipped quietly through the night air, eventually arriving at a transit centre where various buses and an inter-city train awaited. According to the airport bus timetable, the next one was in 20 minutes. After more than 15 minutes standing in the chilly breeze, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by foregoing a taxi. However, before long the bus appeared and headed down the coast towards the airport. Not sure what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised that we were to stop at all five terminals, dropping off at Departures and picking up at Arrivals at each one. My final act in San Diego was to use the free WiFi provided throughout the airport for all passengers.
All in all, I had a very pleasant but perfectly ordinary day by European or North American standards. However, if I were to put my experiment into a Nigerian context, for example, my day was nothing short of miraculous. Normally, I am loathe to compare standards in developing countries with those in the West; however, on this occasion, I want to explore aspects of development that should be common to all societies, especially as they affect the average person. When I discuss these issues with friends in the Caribbean or Africa, the tendency is to focus on the cost of development, rather than how we prioritise. The conclusion is often predictable: “We can’t afford it.” Yet, our economies sustain any number of vanity projects, white elephants and ill-conceived flights-of-fancy that never improve anyone’s existence.
For those of us who are spiritually inclined, we might remember what Jesus said about the treatment of the common man: “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” If you need further evidence of the importance of this approach, examine the world’s great civilisations, where art, science and recreation flourished alongside wealth and conquest; or the world’s great cities, like New York, Paris and London, with thousands of acres of parkland, amazing transport systems and excellent public facilities for all.
From my observations and research, the following must be a part of our development if we are to attain the standards of living we aspire to:
- The existence of green spaces, museums, galleries and facilities for the performing arts that are accessible to ordinary citizens is vital for civilisation
- Reasonably-priced, clean and convenient public transport is a right, not an option, of every citizen in a modern society
- Development must always consider the needs of the disabled, senior citizens, children and others who may be disadvantaged
- A well-educated population creates opportunity, spawns innovation and attracts investment
One of the biggest enemies of progress in developing economies is the disconnect between leaders and the electorate. The elite slice through traffic with their motorcades, oblivious to the suffering all around them. Conversely, it’s not unusual for elected officials, senior executives and millionaires to take public transport in developed countries or even ride bicycles, like David Cameron or London mayor, Boris Johnson. Not surprisingly, London is one of the best cities for cyclists and has a fantastic network of buses, underground and overground trains, trams, cable car, riverboats, ferries and bicycles for hire. Simply put, if public facilities in your country are not good enough for the elite, they are not good enough for anyone.
In Nigeria, we are desperate for any sign of progress and celebrate the launch of gleaming international-brand hotels, fancy restaurants and shopping malls – the result of private investment. But, try getting a bus to the mall or contemplate the fate of a carefree visitor stepping outside the hotel with no driver waiting. The immediate past governor of Lagos was berated when he began replacing dusty, chaotic roadside hangouts for traders and touts with green spaces. Now, many of the same people who literally asked, “Can we eat this grass?” are appreciating the civilising effect that these parks have on the city. Former Cross River governor, Donald Duke, was similarly vilified and later celebrated, and Calabar is now the greenest city in Nigeria and the calmest – is that a coincidence?
Let us remove the barriers that prevent our people from unleashing their innovation and creativity, and becoming their best selves. Let us dedicate ourselves to more equitable societies where every person has access to education, recreation and appreciation of the arts – a total development of the mind. Every leader and every citizen in every developing country should make it their mission to pursue development that uplifts the mind and spirit of ‘the least of these brothers and sisters’, in order to accelerate our progress.
My firm belief is that if we lift those at the bottom of the society, we lift everyone. If we leave them behind, our legacy will be poverty, disease and crime. The choice is ours.