Decongesting Nairobi

All of us are familiar with the hustle and bustle of our capital city, Nairobi. In the days of yore people migrated from rural to urban areas, mostly Nairobi; to seek greener pastures and eke a living. Over the years, this has translated to population growth that has shocked us all.

What does this have to do with motoring, you ask?

Everything. Motoring in Nairobi requires a great deal of patience, tenacity and brazenness. Every day, millions of city residents spend hours in heavy traffic jams, which translates to lost man hours, increased cost of business (due to increased fuel overheads and vehicle wear and tear, not to mention increased transit time), and increased stress levels.

A good transportation system is necessary to propel a nation forward, in all respects. In this article we explore the causes, effects of a poorly planned transport network and propose solutions for all of us to think about. The benefits of an improved transportation system are several; as motoring and moving about will be made easier and more pleasurable. In view of the increasing cost of living and the equally increasing populace, this is a challenge that needs to be tackled head on.

For a long time, I was a user of the ever busy Jogoo road, which serves a great deal of city residents; particularly from the Eastlands area. Nowadays, I am a user of Waiyaki way, which is not as bad, but I have noticed that traffic is increasing by the day; and will soon turn into a gridlock as well if not well managed. Thika road is another notorious route. What would be a long lasting solution to this problem? Expanding roads only seems to work for a while, before population increase catches up with development.

In the 1970s as Nairobi was developing, the city fathers surely did not predict population levels to be what they are today. To be fair to the government, quite a number of initiatives have been undertaken to ease the congestion in our city. One of the largest and most memorable was the construction of the Thika superhighway, which took 5 years to complete. The result was breathtaking; and exciting for us all. Construction of the Eastern, Northern and Southern bypasses have indeed helped to ease traffic (and hence peace of mind) for city residents. Outering road in Nairobi’s Eastlands area is also being expanded, which will be a relief to many, once complete.

There are a number of decongestion initiatives that flopped, however. Despite the County government’s efforts to decongest the CBD, these efforts have not yet yielded fruit. In the 2008, Public Service Vehicles were ordered out of the city, and were meant to terminate their journeys outside the CBD. This was not received well by most stakeholders, and somehow PSVs found their way back into the City Centre. In the same initiative, a shuttle service was established to operate from the Muthurwa stage, to enable commuters access the CBD in an organized manner. This shuttle service however was halted after 2 weeks of operation. As a result of the current congestion in the CBD, driving on Tom Mboya, Accra and River roads is a journey that many motorists would rather avoid.

More recently, efforts were made to ease traffic flow in the city centre by blocking major roundabouts and re-routing traffic to designated points; which most motorists found downright frustrating! The project had to be abandoned a few days later, save for the Westlands roundabout which worked well and actually helped to decongest that roundabout which suffered heavy traffic before this change.

We ought to acknowledge that these efforts are noble and have contributed significantly towards the decongestion of the city and have made motoring more bearable in the city. However, it is important for us to plan for the future and look into transportation needs for the coming generations. It is for this reason that we now look into cities that serve as models of efficient transport systems, in order for us to benchmark and establish where we need to be.

Not long ago, Seoul revamped its transport system. Choked with pollution and traffic jams, it shifted from policies focused on expansion of existing road and rail networks to policies focused on creating transit oriented cities. From 1980 to 2010, the total length of roads in Korea doubled, in contrast to congestion costs quadrupling for the same period. In 2004, they embarked on a strategy to draw people out of their cars and into public transport by modernizing and expanding their bus systems. Seoul have a vision for 2030 where the city would become a place where people will not need to rely on their cars. This is an ideal I believe we can adopt and work towards.

The city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, is another great example of an efficient transport system. This city has ample space for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. They have succeeded in making their public transit systems (Rail, Tram and Bus) efficient and appealing to the public.

In the city of Nairobi, the needs to other road users; specifically cyclists’ needs’ seem to have been ignored. Lack of dedicated cycling lanes and a lack of respect for cyclists has led to unnecessary deaths. In the month of June, a cyclist (who was a good friend) was killed on the Thika Superhighway in a grisly encounter with a lorry. His fellow cyclists staged a peaceful protest in his honor and sensitized the general public on the need to respect all road users, and share the road. As we continue to expand and improve on our transport infrastructure, it is important for us to consider the needs of all road users, in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all.

A study of the most efficient transport systems around the world shows that success lies in encouraging people to ditch their cars in favour of public transport. Therefore, this means that the alternatives must be appealing to the target market, a large proportion of which comprises of motorists. From my observation, most of us drive to work alone, or at the most with one other person.

In my opinion, if we had safe and convenient options to travel without our cars, we would be happy to do so. Matatus and buses play an important role in the transport industry; but in themselves are not enough. Some see matatus as a necessary evil, and the tendency of most is to buy a car to avoid using public transport.

The challenge with simply expanding road infrastructure is that sooner or later, development will catch up with it. We can rise above the challenge, however, by providing transport options for road users to choose from. So does the solution lie with improved rail, organized bus systems and routes, or even trams? A cost-benefit analysis of each solution will need to be looked into. The solution may even lie outside just improving the transport network in the city and facilitating the development of other towns in the country, and shifting the nation’s mindset in regards to working and investing in other regions. There are political and social factors that need to be taken into account, that are outside the scope of this article.

Motoring is not pleasurable in heavy traffic. Many a times whilst stuck in traffic I have wished I could somehow leave my car and walk. If the congestion problem is left unchecked, motoring in our city will become unbearable.

What can we do at an individual level to improve decongestion, and improve our collective transit experience? My suggestions would include obeying the laws of the land and observing courtesy to fellow motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, take the bus to work, or walk to work if possible, and cycle if and when you can. Let’s strive to do our part to improve motoring conditions in Nairobi.

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