Abigail Osei-Asamoah on transportation in Africa

Abigail Osei-Asamoah on transportation in Africa
12 min read

Rapid population growth and regional dynamics are key factors in the intensifying pressure on transportation systems in Africa.

Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Accra, Ghana

Ghanaian Transportation Engineer and Planner, Abigail Osei-Asamoah, discusses transportation challenges and solutions for Africa.

Abigail Osei-Asamoah, Ph.D.

Abigail was born and raised in Kumasi, Ghana. She attended Wesley Girls High School, where she majored in General Sciences and continued on to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology where she pursued a BS in Civil Engineering. Upon completion, she worked for a year as a National Service Personnel at the Department of Urban Roads in Kumasi, after which she went on to pursue a MS in Transportation Engineering at the University of Florida.

Abigail now has a PhD in Transportation and Urban Engineering from the University of Connecticut and is currently a Transportation Engineering Planner/Modeler with CDM Smith Inc.

  • Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

“As a transportation planner, my work involves using different tools to predict and identify future transportation needs and patterns of growth in transportation system. It involves examining scenarios and evaluating the effects of actions that can improve the transportation system and simply prepare for future transportation needs.

Aside from working, I enjoy outdoor activities like walking, and recently, running. I like to push my limits and try to do every day better than I did the previous one. Growing up, I was a bit of tomboy, and even now I still have a bit of that in me. I enjoy having a great conversation and making light out of situations, which some folks may find a bit annoying.”

  • Why Transportation Engineering?

“To quote one of my professors in college; “Transportation is the backbone on which cities and towns are built”. I believe a city gets its character from its transportation system. I have always been interested in the way things move and how stuff gets from one place to another. Transportation engineering allows me combine my passion for science and my desire to make an impact to improve the safety and conditions of service for users of the transportation system. In addition, my dad who is a Civil Engineer mentored me a lot growing up. I remember reading books in his study, wondering what all the drawings and numbers in the books meant, and him trying to explain in simple terms, how those numbers characterized features of the transportation system like the strength of a bridge.”

  • What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face as a Transportation Engineer? How did/do you deal with them?

“Transportation engineering like most engineering fields is male dominated, and one of the most common challenges female engineers face in such fields is the need to prove they are equally as competent as their male counterparts. While I do not agree that a woman can do everything a man can do, it still surprises me that women engineers are sometimes undermined in my profession. My favorite example, comes from my days as a National Service Personal at the Department of Urban Roads. One day a lady contractor walked into the office, and wanted her finished culvert contract to be inspected and approved by an engineer. I remember as we got ready to travel to her work site, she asked my then supervisor why I was coming along with him to the site. My supervisor informed her that she had just insulted the engineer who was going to approve the work she had done. I honestly found it amusing.

While I believe it is less common with the younger generation, there are a few engineers from the older generation who still have a bit of difficulty working with women engineers.

This challenge, I mostly deal with by making sure I do an excellent job. The best way to tackle this is to be dedicated, excellent, and committed to what you do, and let your work speak for itself.”

  • Traffic congestion is still a big issue in some African countries. What do you believe causes congestion, and how can it be solved?

“The most common cause of traffic congestion is the demand for transportation exceeding its supply. In road transportation, congestion often arises when the capacity of the road is not enough to accommodate the traffic. In addition, a simple problem like an inefficient traffic signal system can cause a significant amount of congestion at an intersection. When there are deficiencies in the design of the road, it can also cause congestion.

I suspect most of the congestion problems in African countries are as a result of the demand for transportation facilities exceeding their supply. However, the more road capacity is added, the more it will it be used. I have heard of new interchanges being built in Accra, Ghana and instead of mitigating congestion, it further exacerbated the problem. This is because, as soon as new lane is added or a road is built, drivers will be attracted to it, change routes and fill it up.

One way to solve congestion problems in African countries is to invest in alternatives to single user transportation. Investing in, and improving mass transit systems will make it more attractive to users. Think of the difference one bus transporting 30 people at a time will make, versus a single driver in a single vehicle.   

Giving road users an incentive to park their vehicles and take mass transit will help improve the traffic congestion. Consistent maintenance of traffic signals and updating them and retiming them will also help reduce congestion problems at intersections.

Another way to improve congestion is better planning of land use and transportation. The land use determines the transportation system. If policies were put in place to better anticipate future needs in the transportation system in relation to changes in the land use, it will go a long way to manage future congestion issues that may arise in the system.”

  • Do you agree that part of understanding a country’s transportation system and its development needs is appreciating the history and culture of its people? Please share your thoughts.

“History and culture to an extent, do play a role in the development of the transportation system. The history and culture of the people in a country determine their values and their social norms.

Efficient transport systems do not only provide accessibility but also improve and enhance social interaction. A culture, where social norms emphasize the need for communication and interaction will focus on a transportation system that facilitates interpersonal interaction and communication.

People in such a cultural background may appreciate more walking and transit systems, where a person interacts with other people compared to driving on high speed roads in individual vehicles during which the driver doesn’t really interact with anyone than at their origin and destination. Such a culture will appreciate a system that allows users to frequently stop safely and interact while using the system.

There have been cases in which elaborate transportation systems like rail or super-fast transit have been built in many developed countries but have been underutilized or have not been able to reach their potential because the culture didn’t support transit but supported more driving. Another example is developing exclusive bike paths in areas where biking is not a significant part of the culture.

An examination of the history of a country will also provide further insights about the past development of the transportation system. Looking at how the transportation system has survived or grown in the past will better throw more light on what is needed in the system.”

  • What is the one thing you’d like to change about Ghana’s transportation system, and why?

“If there was one thing I could change about Ghana’s transportation system, I would change the system to protect more vulnerable road users like pedestrians by introducing measures that reduce travel speeds in city centers and urban areas, and improve the overall travel conditions in the system.

I would want to do this because I believe Ghana’s greatest resource is its people, and a lot of lives are lost on our roads because of unnecessary speeding. While there is so much that engineering can achieve by designing efficient roads for drivers, driver behavior can only be controlled through regular enforcement and the introduction of measures that can slow drivers down especially at city centers and urban areas where there are a lot of pedestrians.

In addition, an improvement in travel conditions will in the long run also make the roads safer because, drivers won’t feel the need to speed so much if so much travel time wasn’t lost in traffic congestion.”

  • Do you think there is a need for more women in this field?

“There is definitely a need for more women in this field considering it is mostly male dominated. There is definitely satisfaction from seeing fellow women who are mums, wives or just single women who excel in their career and effectively perform their job duties.

It will also help erase the perception than women transportation engineers are somehow less competent or not as good as the men if we had more women working in the field.

It will also provide more opportunities for mentoring and provide opportunities for us to motivate each other to excel at what we do.

I get a lot of inspiration and motivation from my direct supervisor at my current firm, who is a woman and a Senior Transportation Planner. She provides direction to me on the job in areas that I need. She also provides opportunities for me to be involved in diverse projects and makes me aware of how she values my expertise and input in the projects that we work on. I am motivated by the fact that she values me as an employee of the firm and makes me feel welcome in our work environment.”

  • What keeps you motivated?

“I am motivated by the desire to become a better version of myself through a continuous refinement process. At every stage of my life, I look for ways to improve and make an impact in the lives around me. I look for opportunities to learn, apply new things I learn, and improve my problem solving skills. To me every new day of life is an opportunity to do and learn something new.   I would also like to make an impact with my work and I get the greatest satisfaction from producing excellent products and tools for clients that I work for; to provide a better understanding of their future transportation needs. I am glad that I am part of their story.”