Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nairobi traffic is tragedy of the commons

Where grazing is open, one would expect that every herder would strive to bring as many livestock as they can to the pastures. But this would only be possible, indefinitely if the number of herders and beast stay below the carrying capacity of the pasture resources.

As a rational, self-interested individual, each herder seeks to maximize their gain, adding livestock, hoping to maximize utility. At a certain herd density, livestock exceeds the carrying capacity of the commons. This is how American ecologist Garret Hardin described the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

About a month ago, pump prices of petroleum dropped. Today driving in Nairobi is an experience from hell. The traffic situation in Nairobi is a veritable tragedy of the commons. The automobile population has exceeded the carrying capacity of existing road infrastructure.

As a rational being, each car owner sought to take advantage of low gas prices, and to maximize their gain. But the use of a personal car has a positive and a negative consequence. On the positive side, the car owner enjoys the comfort and convenience of a personal car. The downside is the paralyzing immobility created by one more car on the road; a shared nightmare by all car owners.

If there is anyone out there, who still doubts that Nairobi needs an efficient mass transit system, the awful traffic gridlock and revolting immobility is your answer. Breathing nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile compounds and particulate matter is your is your answer. The needs of the commuting public can no longer be left in the hands of a band of ragtag mini van operators. Neither can it be left in the hands of self-interested, not so rational car owners. Moreover, the Nairobi County does not have the capacity to build and manage a mass transit system.

One thing is clear from the traffic fiasco. You cannot build enough roads to accommodate the whims of private car owners. Metropolitan roads must serve public, not private interests of suburban middle and wealthy classes. I have always argued that the more roads you build the more vehicle traffic you get. We must not invest more taxpayers’ money on road expansion if they don't expand mass transit capacity.

 In a sense the logic of the road as open commons has generated an unrelenting tragedy of gridlock and immobility. What shall we do? Here are some policy suggestions.

The first suggestion is to create express matatu lanes, recognize and privilege public transit, giving priority to matatus. The expectation here is that commuting time will be shorter on these express matatu lanes. The second suggestions is to introduce parking meters paid on the hour and convert 40 percent of public parking to recreational spaces and pedestrian walkways. This would be complemented by creating park and ride facilities within 10 kilometers from the CBD.  Nairobi county government could structure the park and ride facilities as public–private partnerships to make up for the 40 percent loss of parking revenues in the CBD. It would also make sense to introduce a congestion task for private cars transiting through the CBD.

 The third suggestion is to convert all major roads into Nairobi into toll or turnpike roads. These would include Thika super highway, Waiyaki road, Mombasa road, Langata road Ngong road, and Jogoo road. A 10-kilometer distance threshold from the CBD would be perfect. In future, toll roads should be part of agreements for build operate and transfer that could help mobilize private money for road infrastructure.

The fourth suggestion is to re-think urban planning and land use. The sprawling of Nairobi is unsustainable. We must encourage mixed residential and commercial use with the core of the city. City neighborhoods outside a radius of 10 kilometers from the CBD must be designated low density. This would reduce, significantly, the population of commuters into the city.

The fifth suggestion is do nothing and hope for two things; that something appeals to the conscience of the car owner to desist from driving to work, or that gas prices will rise again and make driving to work too costly for most car owners.


I am mindful that these policy suggestions are objectionable. But we must act. We cannot afford the senseless inefficiency wrought by partially rational self-interested car owners. And we cannot acquiesce in the abuse the commons that we call public roads.

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