The Nairobi We Want – Traffic

The Walk

Every morning, as the sun comes up, Christinah Asiabukaya is already on the move. The 40-year old who lives in Nairobi’s Kibera slum gets up before 5 to prepare breakfast for her three nephews whom she then walks to school before joining the crowds streaming out of the slum.

The middle-class housing estate where she works as a domestic househelp, is less than two kilometres away. It takes her up to an hour to get there. Housing construction has blocked part of the route and she is forced to improvise, ducking through trash-strewn vichochoros. A railway line cuts through Kibera and is a constant hazard. Muddy puddles make it difficult to work out where the danger is.

It has been raining heavily for weeks now and she is sometimes forced to take a matatu, an extra expense she can barely afford. “They raise their fares whenever it rains,” she complains. Once she alights, she still has to navigate muddy puddles, open manholes and garbage heaps that line the pavements in the residential estates while trying to avoid being drenched by motorists zooming through the water streaming down the roads.

The Drive

“The traffic is just a mess. It’s terrible!” says Irving Jalang’o. He lives along Langata road, a busy, 10km dual carriageway linking the rich and middle-class suburbs of Karen and Langata in the south west to the heart of the city. Irving’s day starts at 5.45 when he gets up. He has to be on the road by 6.30 if he is to avoid the worst of the morning traffic on his daily commute across the city to Westlands, about four kilometers north-west of CBD, where he works as a TV producer. The drive takes him an average of 45 minutes. To save time, he skips breakfast.

Later in the evening, he faces a 90 minute drive back which might stretch to over two hours when it rains. “Sometimes, I prefer to wait it out at the office,” he says. “If it’s raining, what’s the point of leaving at 5pm and spending hours in traffic?”

Before he bought his car, he would to walk part of the way from his previous job in Milimani and board a matatu near Highrise estate. It would take him 45 minutes to cover the two kilometers. He still would prefer to walk but his current job is too far “It is not safe to walk in some areas after sunset,” he says. Public transport is also unreliable. “There’s a sort of mistrust with public transport… The perception still is that it’s insecure being in a matatu and there’s comfort being in your own car or in a taxi.”

Irving does not think the ongoing expansion of roads in the city will solve the traffic situation. “The traffic on Thika road is still as miserable and horrible as it was before [it was expanded]… I don’t think widening the roads can be a solution,” he concludes. “It has proved not to be a solution.”

The Ride

Andrew Mwangi is a matatu driver plying the route between Kikuyu on the northwestern outskirts of Nairobi and the city centre. He has to get up at 5 every morning and is on the road, ferrying passengers shortly thereafter. He complains that the horrendous traffic situation reduces the number of trips he can make in a day (matatu crews’ daily income is typically dependent on how many passengers they carry and thus on how many trips they make). Sometimes he takes up to two hours to cover the 20 kilometers to the city centre. “In that time, without traffic, I would have done two return trips,” he says.

Though he blames the congestion on the proliferation of private vehicles, he does not think the proposed introduction of high capacity buses and exclusive bus lanes will improve the situation. “We used to drive Nissan vans and today we have buses but that has no solved the traffic problem”, he says. “100-seater buses are not a solution”.

He also says that the exclusion of matatus from the Central Business District will only worsen his situation and that of his passengers. “The matatu park the have built at Ngara (about 4 kilometers from the CBD) is too small for the number of vehicles. If we are forced to use it, we will still charge the same fare as before even though will now have to walk to the CBD”.

Motor City

Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile has a long history. “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalized transport” write Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of Nairobi University in their article, Politics, policy and paratransit. By 1928, the city had 5,000 cars “making it the city with the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world.”

Traffic was a major concern even then. But it was still a city more concerned with the problems of a wealthy few who could afford to drive, mainly Europeans and Asians, rather than those of the African majority who largely walked.

In the 1930s, public transport was introduced, initially catering for the wealthier residents but within a decade, the Kenya Bus Services, with an exclusive franchise of carrying fare paying passengers, was plying the African sector of the racially segregated city. However, it was still only a minority who utilized the service.

Matatus emerged in the 1950’s, initially used by Africans to move move goods, and, illegally, people within in the city. The influx into the city that followed the lifting of colonial restrictions at independence created a ready market for these pirate taxis. It wasn’t until a decade later that they were granted recognition by the government and, in a fateful decision that would reverberate down the years, exempted from all licensing regulations.

The matatus had supplanted KBS as the pillars of a chaotic, unruly and deadly public transport system which successfully defied almost every attempt to bring it to heel. Throughout, the majority who travelled on foot continued to be ignored by the government and bullied by drivers.

Road Warriors

“The ongoing battle for the roads of Nairobi is an extension of the city’s broader class segregation: Cars, a transit option for the city’s upper classes, command the road with superiority,” notes a report in the New York-based publication, CityLab. Today, former racial divides have morphed into ones based on income. And as always, the poor are coming off worst. “Pedestrians,” the report continues, “many of whom belong to Nairobi’s lower class of informal laborers, are funneled into dangerous and uncomfortable walking environments.”

The city’s car addiction is encoded into its genes. One World Bank study found that for the average household, only 2 out of every 10 formal jobs are accessible within an hour of either walking or using public transport. In a car, however, that number rises to 9 out of every 10 jobs. Despite this, the city still has one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times with commuting speeds of just 14 kilometers per hour.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle traffic congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can be built. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the Nairobi university, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the city is struggling to cope. The National Transport and Safety Authority says over 90,000 cars are added to Nairobi’s roads every year and the county government’s Non-Motorized Transport Policy acknowledges that “the private car only accounted for about 15% of all trips, but dominates in numbers on Nairobi roads and streets.”

With just over a tenth of the city area dedicated to streets and sidewalks, making more room for cars comes at the expense of space for people. The expanding roads have generated additional headaches for pedestrians, forcing them to either take long detours to find the nearest footbridge or risk their lives trying to dash across six or eight lanes of road.

Mohamed Degane, the County Executive Committee member in charge of roads and transport says attitudes at City Hall are changing. “In the past, the focus was in moving cars. Today it is about moving people”. He says that there are plans to make the city more walkable in order to relieve the pressure on the roads.

Within the Central Business District, only two streets, Mama Ngina Drive and Aga Khan Walk are devoted to pedestrian and non-motorized traffic. However, the county government plans to introduce “car-free days”, during which only public transport vehicles would be allowed to access commercial areas of the city, starting with most of the CBD and Westlands. Along with the introduction of high capacity mass-transit buses travelling on their own designated lanes, the hope is that this will gradually wean wealthy Nairobians off their car addiction and make life a little easier for walkers and users of public transport.

Who Wins?

One of Governor Mike Sonko’s campaign promises last year was to convene a “Nairobi We Want” convention. Modelled on a similarly named convention held 35 years ago, its stated aim would be to bring together Nairobians to discuss and develop a “Reform Masterplan”. But whether it will still be a Nairobi for car owners is at the heart of the issue. In the forward to the 2015 NMT policy, Sonko’s predecessor, Evans Kidero, wrote that “In 1993, participants in the ‘Nairobi We Want’ Convention expressed desire to have a non-motorised transport facilities incorporated as part of the urban fabric.” Despite the promise to “facilitate a mobility environment where all transport modes are of equal importance”, three years later, that vision remains largely a myth.

Part of the reason is that Kenyan public officials almost never walk the city they govern and never use the public transport system they have created. In 1997, it was national news when rain-induced traffic congestion forced then President Daniel Moi to endure the indignity of walking through flooded streets. In 2015, it was Gov Kidero’s turn to grab the headlines with a stroll to Kempinsky hotel. And just last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta hundred-metre saunter to the Treasury building provided fodder for endless analysis and commentaries in the local press.

It is clear that motorists have powerful friends in State House and City Hall to protect their privilege. Yet for such a small minority to so completely dominate the both the road and the public debate about it can only add, rather than lessen the pain of the commute for all. But does that  make life easier for them?

It is the end of the day. As she heads home, Christine is apprehensive. The clouds have gathered and the smell of rain is in the air. She must hurry lest she is caught in the downpour. The sun is setting and she also well knows the dangers of walking the narrow, muddy paths at night. Three hungry children are waiting at home and she stops to buy vegetables for supper. As she walks off clutching her groceries, and trying to avoid muddy puddles and the dangers that lie underneath, she shakes her head and speaks quietly: “I do not think anything will change. It is as if the government does not know that there are people who walk.”

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