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Sunday, April 26, 2015

To alleviate gridlock, limit the use of private cars

Recently, road users in Nairobi were super outraged because rush hour traffic ground to a halt when the county government began to execute a plan to eliminate roundabout intersections. Vitriol on Twitter rolled like the waters of a mighty stream.

Staggered by public outrage the colored drums used to seal of the roundabout intersections rolled. And Nairobi got its gridlock back. The county authorities, by the act of rolling out the colored drums, conceded that they had not have a viable plan.

I thought Nairobi residents would be inspired to seek a bold, sensible and permanent solution to Nairobi’s numbing gridlock. I sent an appeal on Twitter asking #KOT to suggest practical ideas to solve traffic gridlock. I learned that #KOT is extremely long on whining and finger pointing and woefully short on solutions. Have we become a nation of whiners? Is #KOT, despite its enormous power merely a lynch and activist mob?

I have read some truly bizarre suggestions about what is needed to resolve Nairobi’s traffic problem. The myth out there is that we need tens of billions of shillings to build light rail transit, multiple level stack interchange and constant flow intersections. How to accommodate cars in our cities is the most urgent consideration. But we have failed to imagine livable and vibrant cities for people, without automobiles.

Next time you drive around look at how much land and infrastructure is dedicated for the automobile in Nairobi or other Kenyan cities; from parking at the street level to gas stations, to car sale yards to roads. Compare this to sidewalks or cycle lanes or open recreational space or benches on the street. If an alien were asked who owned or lived in our cities, they would say cars and trucks.

When it was inaugurated, Thika Superhighway was lauded as a bold and direct panacea to traffic gridlock. The hitherto long-suffering commuter on what was Thika road heaved a long sigh of relief. Today, Thika Superhighway is now gridlock central, especially during morning rush hour. The exits no longer work. The more roads you build the more traffic you get.

Cities will always lose the battle to satisfy the demands of private motorists. The cost of satisfying the whims of middle and wealthy classes is colossal and unjustifiable. To believe that more roads could solve urban traffic gridlock is analogous to accepting the fallacy that bloodletting could drain evil fluids, which cause disease.
Half a century ago, critics of highways predicted there would be irredeemable tensions between vibrant people-centered cities and the needs of cars. Urban planners chickens have come home to roost. Orthodox city planning is not based on any knowledge about cities work in real life.

Traffic gridlock will strangulate and snuff life out of urban living. It is easy to blame the number of cars on the road. It is easy to suggest that gas prices are too low and ought to be raised so poorer drivers get their cars off the road. The annoying gridlock and insatiable demand by cars for wider roads is really a symptom of our incompetence at urban planning and management.

The combined effects of a lack of safe walking or cycling areas, a lack of investment in public transit and expansion of highways without enforcing land use planning, which has encouraged a proliferation of suburbs, and widespread use of private cars. Unfortunately, considerable energy and public resources is, now directed at dealing with the symptoms of our incompetence, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.

The use of private automobiles is the cause of gridlock. Get rid of them. Create a disincentive for use of private cars. Such disincentives must be complemented by realistic choices for private care users.

Five measures could limit use of private cars and alleviate gridlock: 1) Create a metro system, with express lanes for commuter services and car pool; 2) Enter a public private public partnership to provide park and ride services; 3) Eliminate of 60 percent of public street level public parking; 4) Develop regional planning framework between Nairobi county and the counties of Kiambu, Machakos and Kajiado to contain urban sprawl; 5) Introduce of road toll charges within a radius of 15 km from the CBD.

Expensive infrastructure or elimination of the roundabout will not solve Nairobi’s traffic gridlock; near extermination of use private cars will.

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