Why end of Nairobi traffic chaos is nowhere in sight

Traffic jam along Nairoib's Uhuru Higway and Haille Sellasie Avenue junction in Nairobi Kenya taken on November 25, 2015. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]
Thousands of Nairobi commuters and motorists last Monday suffered one of the worst days in the city’s routine traffic jams as Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko banned matatus from the Central Business District (CBD).

The ban that caught the city residents unawares was rescinded 24 hours later following a public outcry but not without huge cost in lost man-hours, fuel and fatigue for Nairobi residents.

This is not the first time the Nairobi County Government has attempted drastic solutions to bring an end to the city’s traffic headache.

Former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, backed by the Ministry of Transport, in 2015 poured millions into a project to remove roundabouts in the city centre and convert major arteries in the CBD into one-way streets. 

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The plan similarly involved a moratorium on the licensing of new public service vehicles to reduce what the governor called a glut in the city.

“There has been an oversupply of public service vehicles that is contributing to the congestion in the bus termini and the CBD,” Dr Kidero said while announcing the measures.

“We have stopped the licensing of new public service vehicles (PSVs) until a demand audit is conducted to give us figures of where we need new vehicles and by how much,” he said.

After a few days of erecting yellow concrete drums around major roundabouts to convert them into one-way lanes, the governor was forced to remove the barriers as traffic jams worsened.

The proposed demand audit is yet to materialise and despite the reported ban on licensing of new 14-seater matatus this week, official government data shows otherwise and the city’s population of matatus has grown exponentially in the past three years.

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Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicates the number of 14-seater matatus licensed each year has increased from 9,545 to 17,926 in 2016, a year after the government announced the ban, and then to 37,382 last year.

The number of 15 to 33-seater mini-buses licensed also went up from 3,350 in 2013 to 8,213 in 2016 but fell to 4,246 last year.

While not all of the vehicles licensed operate in Nairobi, the city accounts for a huge chunk of the country’s motor vehicle population, which is only growing larger. 

Last year, KNBS reported more than 282,672 new motor vehicles and motor cycles registered with a 50 per cent growth in new licences for motor cycles.  

Last week’s traffic mess and City Hall’s hasty about-turn from a half-thought strategy thus served as an opportunity for stakeholders to move towards permanent solutions to the normalised crisis of traffic jams.

Recent data on the actual cost of Nairobi’s gridlocks to the country’s economy is difficult to come by and varying estimates have been made in the past. Technology giant IBM in 2011 ranked Nairobi as having the fourth most painful traffic experience in the world, right behind Beijing and Johannesburg.

The study that also monetised the man-hours lost on Nairobi’s traffic jams said the Kenyan economy loses Sh50 million daily.

In another study that looked at how the development of Nairobi hampers movement through the city, the World Bank last year found the city’s road infrastructure was largely to blame.

“Africa’s urban roads are disproportionately clustered near the centre,” said the study. “In Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Kigali and Nairobi, paved roads drop off so abruptly outside the downtown area that they nearly disappear.”

The World Bank says this pushes many residents of Nairobi to settle outside the CBD as the lack of paved roads makes commuting from the periphery impractical.

“People are clustering in downtown locations not because of the amenities or decent jobs they can access in central locations,” explains the bank.

“These patterns reflect broader dysfunctionalities in land markets as well as limited investments in transport infrastructure, limiting the choices that people can make on where to live and how to access jobs.” 

This means PSV operators have few options to use as centralised termini within and outside the city centre, a concern that is echoed by matatu operators.

“The locations designated by the City County to serve as matatu termini are too small for available operators,” said Association of Matatu Operators Chairman Jimal Ibrahim last week.

He says there are 256 matatu saccos in the CBD, a number that he admits will have to be reduced. “We are not against leaving the CBD and we have formed a committee with the City County to help decongest the city,” he said.

Mr Jimal said operators are not opposed to reforming the sector through measures such as introducing the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system and insists the sector is already complying with new guidelines from the government.

“We are already complying and making measures like limiting noisy exhausts and putting up tinted windows and we’ll work with the agencies concerned to ensure full compliance,” he said.

The official however blamed the police for worsening traffic jams in the CBD. “We have an issue with traffic police officers around the Kenya Archives, Afya Centre and Khoja termini who worsen the traffic jams that often start from 2pm just to collect bribes,” he said, adding that the officers collect between Sh400 and Sh500 from each matatu daily in bribes.

“The Ministry of Interior should remove traffic police officers from the CBD since there is often no traffic to control especially in the morning,” he said.

“The City County officers can take charge of traffic in the CBD and the police maintain control of roundabouts and roads outside the CBD.”

Ultimately, the solution to the gridlock that millions of city residents experience every morning and evening will require more time and resources and demands much more than piecemeal reforms in the PSV sector.

In 2011, the World Bank approved a Sh30 billion project to upgrade 221 kilometres of road in the country and boost operations of major transport authorities such as the Kenya National Highways Authority.

The Kenya Transport Sector Support Project further received an additional Sh20 billion in funding in 2014 with the World Bank saying more than 80 per cent of both lines of credit have already been disbursed.

Recently, the project was revised to facilitate construction of traffic control centres, ICT management systems and a study for the improvement of traffic flow in Nairobi.

In addition to this, the extension is expected to facilitate the creation of what will be the country’s first BRT system.

The feasibility and design studies for one line of the BRT system on Thika Road and funded by the European Union and the Japan International Corporation Agency is already complete.

Ground to a halt

However, the project that has eluded previous administrations in a similar pattern of delays has since ground to a halt and will not beat the anticipated deadlines.

The National Treasury was expected to foot Sh11 billion for implementing the project but the status remains unclear.

At the same time, the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA), formed to implement the transformation of the city’s transport network has remained dormant since President Uhuru Kenyatta gazetted it almost two years ago. 

NaMATA is expected to have jurisdiction over four other counties apart from Nairobi - Kiambu, Kajiado, Machakos and Murang’a. 

Plans to import high-capacity buses from South Africa as well as contract local firms such as Isuzu East Africa to assemble the same for the BRT system have similarly stalled with the Treasury and Transport ministry giving no indication of when budgetary allocations will be made available.

In the meantime, Nairobians continue to grapple with unnecessarily long commutes that drain valuable man hours and lead to untold loss of productivity for the economy.   

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