How to reduce Nairobi’s endless traffic jams

By FRED GORI

The botched switch by Kenya to digital television has been in the news a lot in the past few weeks, as deadline after deadline has either expired unmet, or as the courts have granted extension after extension, based on one or other argument by lawyers.

As the festive season set in last December, thousands of Nairobians packed off to their rural homes to celebrate the season with extended family and friends. Others who could afford it headed to the Coastal City of Mombasa to cool off after what, in many ways, was a dramatic year.

Getting out of the city around Christmas is a tradition many follow strictly. It is one of those habits which make us ‘Kenyan’.

Thankfully, this is the only time in the year when the city is freed of its depressing traffic jams and the hustle and bustle dies down. It is also the only time when I am reminded that Ongata Rongai, better known in some circles as ‘Diaspora’, is actually 30 minutes to Nairobi and not the debilitating two hours we are used to.

The holiday season offers us a taste of the ideal Nairobi. It is a Nairobi we may not realistically regain soon considering the overconcentration of resources, opportunities and the middle class in the metropolitan area of nearly seven million inhabitants.

I can bet that when Nairobians went to the polls in March last year to elect their first Governor, top of their mind was to find a leader who could find long lasting solutions to the causes of traffic congestion.

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Ten months later, it should have dawned on us that not only has very little changed, but that solutions are neither simplistic nor immediate.

Going by what we see on social media, many Nairobians tend to share and enjoy dry sense of humour, a subconscious way of dealing with high levels of stress. I would recommend a double dose of humour this year because traffic tie-ups are going to be with us for some time.

I was having a debate on social media the other day with some typical Nairobians about the ‘return of traffic jam’ to Kenya’s most significant piece of infrastructural development, the Thika Superhighway.

The participants in the debate, some of them regular users of the acclaimed highway, wondered how the situation would have been like, if at present levels, we were to turn the clock back ten years.

The Mwai Kibaki and Grand Coalition Governments have as their legacy the massive investment in infrastructure, particularly roads, with the Thika Superhighway being their signature project. Whereas good, wide roads play an important role in the management of traffic, it must be stated that on their own they cannot end traffic gridlock in a city, which is growing in population of people and machine at an alarming rate. The cost of traffic congestion is very high. The Nairobi County Deputy Governor, Jonathan Mueke, was recently quoted as saying that traffic jams cost the city Sh50 million a day. That’s a monumental amount by any standards. But the cost can also be looked at in qualitative terms manifested in reduced quality of life due to traffic related stress, dysfunctional families, road rage, accidents and resulting hospitalisation.

So, what can the city do to save herself from this unceasing pain? We must agree that practical solutions will affect our lives in very important ways but that ultimately, everyone will benefit. We must also agree that some of the proposed solutions will be fiercely resisted by interest groups hence the need for political will at the highest level.

To begin with, this is the time to introduce that ‘24-hour economy’, famously associated with former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, or something close to it. Why should the whole city, in what looks like pure comedy, troupe into offices at 8am and make their exit at 5pm? Are we more productive this way? Hell, no! We waste too much time in traffic, arrive at work already tired and get home too late to spend time with our families.

Depending on the sector, let’s have a system where some arrive at work at 7am and leave at 4pm; another group reports at 9am and depart at 6pm and yet another reporting at 11am and departing at 8pm. A number of bank branches already open their doors up to 8pm while a number of supermarkets remain open 24 hours, so this proposal is not unique.

dangling carrots

Secondly the city must invest, or support investment in clean, efficient and reliable public transport system with predictable times, routes and fares. The Government can then dangle carrot and stick to encourage Nairobians to leave their saloon cars at home and get on board mass transportation system.

With a reliable alternative, the County government will be justified to significantly raise parking fees to act as a deterrent for private car owners who insist on using their cars to work.

Finally, in spite of the teething challenges witnessed so far, the concept of devolution holds a lot of promise both in terms of faster development throughout the country and decongesting the city as more Nairobians migrate to the counties to take advantage of the opportunities created there. It behoves all Kenyans, particularly those in authority, to ensure devolution succeeds.

In the meantime, I will wait for the holiday season again to enjoy a semblance of order.

The writer is a public relations specialist based in Nairobi.

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