Decongesting Nairobi: A history of more failures than successes

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In the latest episode to this neverending story, the Nairobi county government has introduced a new approach to decongest traffic in this city of close to 4 million inhabitants. There is a certainty that while this is not the first of such initiatives, it will definitely not be the last.

A few months back, I wrote in this column presenting some reasons why the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) initiative, established for the same purpose, should not be allowed to flop. I used this space to beseech authorities to consider BRT’s success elsewhere and work towards its effectiveness. Readers of this column who commute on the Thika superhighway can retell the enthusiasm that ushered in after the demarcation of a dedicated lane for BRT.

It’s effectiveness and use are still alien. Over the past five years, multiple initiatives have been launched by the national government departments and the county government to unlock the gridlock. This translates to billions of shillings spent opening up city roads but most of these initiatives have come to naught. In 2015, former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero flaunted removal of roundabouts at key roundabouts as a way of ensuring smooth flow of vehicles along major city roads.

The much touted Kidero drums were drum shaped movable concrete pillars that were placed at some roundabouts to reroute traffic to roads that were considered less congested. The intention was to eliminate the bottleneck that happens at road intersections by making the existing lanes a smooth way all through so that snarl ups do not occur as motorists have to give way to each other at intersections.

It all looked beautiful. It looked like decorations along select roads leading to the city centre. This cost the county government Sh288 million. This had been preceded by a Sh400 million failed plan to improve vehicle flow by upgrading traffic lights and installing cameras. A report tabled in the Nairobi County Assembly by members of its Transport Committee showed that Sh400 million CCTV cameras installed in Nairobi’s city centre are of poor quality and cannot be relied on.

In March, the committee reported that 26 out of the 42 cameras were dysfunctional. Some of those that are working lack the requisite equipment to enable communication between control centre and several surveillance points. In 2016, governor Kidero introduced yellow boxes on city roads. The yellow boxes junctions were placed at intersections that were notoriously congested. Motorists were expected to not enter the yellow box when traffic lights turn green unless the exit is clear. Those caught in the yellow box contrary to the regulation were to face prosecution.

This regulation required a lot of sensitization to motorists. It did not happen. While these initiatives have focused on the infrastructure development, moving forward, such initiatives should factor in key demographic realities that led to the city’s traffic situation. The city’s growing population also translates to an increase in the number of vehicles coming into the city. In 2008, there were about 300,000 vehicles coming into the city, according to the Ministry of Transport.

At the time, this number had been increasing by 5,000 vehicles per month. A report by the Ministry of Roads and Public Works also said that about 15 per cent of Nairobians owned a private car and 35 per cent of vehicles on city roads were private cars (And this was back in 2007, how much worse has this gotten 11 years later?) Limiting the number of matatus coming into the city at a time is a plausible solution but a longlasting solution has to look beyond banning matatus and relocating their ‘hangers.’

Car-free days, a light rail and BRT were announced by the NairobiRegeneration Committee as lasting solutions. The implementation of the car-free days expected to begin in July has come to naught. There are lessons to draw from these experiences. First, decongesting a city goes beyond infrastructure development. It requires behaviour change. It requires winning hearts and minds. Kenyans are unable to obey the simplest of rules.

Even there are cameras, yellow boxes, kidero drums, fewer matatus on the road, some deranged soul will still obstruct traffic. Second, the city past planning has been awful. Policymakers need to rethink the city’s public commute. In 2030, the city’s population will hit 8 million and probably 12 or 15 million by 2050. It will be a nightmare to move 15 million people on privately run 14-seater matatus.

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