Today, more than half of our kind lives in cities. Moreover, cities are the engines of economic growth. More than 60 percent of global GDP is generated by only 600 cities. Nairobi generates 45 percent of Kenya’s GDP. There is power in the city. But with this power come not just promise, but pain.
A majority of cities in the developing world, especially our very own Nairobi has long way to go in terms of quality of life. Poor quality of life is visible in squalid slums. Poor quality of life is evident in painful or fatal commute. Dysfunctional urban transportation comes at a steep cost. Costs related to loss of productivity, safety and air quality.
According data published in 2009 by Kenya Police and Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Nairobi accounted for 30 percent and 28 percent of traffic injuries and fatalities respectively. A study by researchers from Columbia University and University of Nairobi revealed that Nairobi residents were exposed to elevated concentrations of fine particle air pollution, due in large part to motor vehicle emissions, with potentially serious long-term implications for human health. While they occupy two percent of global land area, cities account for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming.
Kenya’s urban population is in the throes of unprecedented expansion, with cities expected to be home to over 40 million Kenyans by 2050. The most urgent challenge, therefore, is achieving a sustainable and equitable growth for our cities. A transportation network, the circulatory system, which connects people to recreation, vital services and economic opportunities can deliver or torpedo the promise of urbanization.
On average, it takes about one hour to drive between University Way roundabout and Nyayo Stadium, a distance of about 3 kilometers. The 2011 IBM Global Commuter Pain survey ranked Nairobi as the fourth most grueling commute of 20 cities surveyed. It is estimated that traffic congestion costs the city of Nairobi circa Ksh.50, 000,000 every day in lost productivity and gas bills – a figure equivalent to 2010/11 CDF allocations to Westlands Constituency. I am not sure how this number was arrived at, and by whom. But it is a monumental waste.
Over 61 percent of Nairobi residents polled in the IBM survey said traffic was affecting their productivity, forcing them to sacrifice time with their families and output work in order to get to commute between engagement destinations. Nairobi’s traffic gridlock does not make for a drop dead an attractive destination for investors or a liveable city where world-class talent would want to come. Hence, the choices we make on Nairobi’s transport system today will have lasting consequences on mobility, investor appeal, economic opportunity, health and safety.
Solutions to the traffic mess in Nairobi need not be complex engineering or technology solutions. On the contrary, superhighways, moronic traffic lights or swanky railway stations have come at a huge cost, without easing congestion. To cure Nairobi of the cancer of traffic gridlock will require political will from both levels of government, a shift in the mindset of transportation and land use planners, and the commuting public.
We can take six bold steps to eliminate traffic congestion, raise revenue, reduce air pollution, improve health and safety and save $220 million in productivity losses annually– a cost equivalent to building one Thika Superhighway a year. They include:
1. Identifying and acquiring land within a radius of 10km to the north, east, west and south of the CBD and building park– and – ride facilities. This can be expedited through a public private partnership, providing safe and scheduled commuter busses;
2. Eliminating 25-50% of street-level parking in the CBD and pedestrianize the street using exemplar model of Mama Ngina Street;
3. Making it mandatory for developers of office buildings to provide for all parking requirements for their tenants within the building;
4. Designating a congestion charge zone around the CBD between 07:00hrs and 18:00hrs and instituting an appropriate congestion charge;
5. Encouraging mixed-use development in the CBD area and encourage high-rise apartment development in the city core to forestall proliferation of suburban neighborhoods; and,
6. Removing policemen from roundabouts controlled by traffic lights.
More importantly, we must focus on emerging cities like Machakos, Kakamega, Homabay, Muranga, and Bomet. They offer an opportunity to avoid path dependence and lock-in effects, which present a huge barrier to designing a sensible urban transport system for Nairobi.