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Monday, March 16, 2015

Plan to solve Nairobi’s traffic mess inadequate

Last week Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau observed that it takes 45 minutes to fly from Kampala to Nairobi and 2 hours to drive from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Nairobi’ s city centre, a distance of 18 km.

The observation by Mr. Kamau is not extra ordinarily enlightened. Nairobi’s commuters have to endure endless and excruciating traffic gridlock. Commuters now think traffic jams are an inextricable feature of life in Nairobi. The immobility and frustration, and the cost to business and the economy are both indefensible and shameful.  It is an indictment of our urban planning and governance.

Nairobi’s traffic catastrophe has been years in the making. Our technocrats and decision makers have aided it consistently and deliberately for the past half-century.  And a passive and self-interested public has actively abetted it. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Four factors have converged to create Nairobi’s traffic catastrophe. First is the expansion of major road arteries into Nairobi; more roads more cars. Second is a substantial rise in car ownership owing to two things; influx of cheap used cars into the markets and expanded access to unsecured bank loans. Third is unregulated expansion of high-density affordable housing in the sprawling suburbs, buoyed by road expansion and lack of land use zoning in contiguous counties. Fourth is a large and growing urban population; Nairobi is home to about 1 in 10 Kenyans.

Other factors that explain Nairobi’s unconscionable traffic gridlock include inadequate, 19th century urban road infrastructure, a total absence of any form of rational traffic management, lack of public transit system and the drop the price of gas.

Last week Nairobi’s Governor, Evans Kidero and Michael Kamau, Cabinet Secretary for transport and infrastructure admitted that Nairobi’s traffic congestion was a matter of great concern. There is task force and it has a plan in place to address the traffic mess. The plan includes: an intelligent transport system backed by a traffic management centre (How different is this from a similar system, with lights and cameras was installed in Nairobi in 2012); removal of all roundabouts between Waiyaki way and Mombasa road; review of PSV termini to reduce number of matatus entering the CBD, suspension of licensing of PSVs in Nairobi subject to demand analysis; expansion of existing roads and construction of bypasses.

In the long-term, under a memorandum of understanding, the national and county government will build a Bus Rapid Transit and a Light Rail Transit. Also in the works is the so-called institutional framework through the Nairobi Metropolitan Transit Authority to address Nairobi’s transit issues.

That the government is grappling with Nairobi’s horrendous and shameful traffic is laudable. The plan proposed to resolve the traffic mess is grandiose but myopic. The plan has been greeted with enthusiastic cynicism. The plan fails to put any burden on private motorist, and instead suggests, contrary to existing evidence, that matatus account for a large part of Nairobi’s traffic congestion problem.

The plan places no obligation on urban and regional planning and makes no reference to the role of the governments of the contiguous counties of Machakos, Kajiado and Kiambu, which account for a significant volume of commuter traffic into Nairobi. Moreover, the plan does not involve the private sector in providing solutions to Nairobi’s traffic mess. It is big on spending your money.

I offer four suggestions. First, we need a public private partnership to build and operate park and ride facilities 10 km from the CBD and reliable high occupancy bus shuttles into the city. This should be accompanied by the elimination of 40-60 percent of street level public parking in the CBD and a congestion levy for private cars entering the CBD.

Second, Nairobi County should enter into an agreement with neighboring counties to regulate the conversion of farmland to high-density residential use. Planning regulations should outlaw development of high-density settlements beyond 15 km from a major urban centre.

Third, a partnership among Nairobi County, the Rift Valley Railway (RVR) and the Kenya Railway Corporation could increase the capacity of RVR to modernize and expand its services, and get more private cars off the road.

Fourth, do not rush to replace roundabouts with four-way intersections. Globally, roundabouts have been shown to perform better and are safer than other intersection controls modes. What is needed is clever re-design and better controls at the roundabout.

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