It is not uncommon to see an ambulance caught in Nairobi’s nauseating traffic gridlock, sirens wailing at full blast with motorists unable to budge to give way.
When the overlapping starts, motorists compete for right of way, ending up with vehicles parked in a higgledy-piggledy state in the middle of the road with no space to move into.
In these circumstances, accidents are common. Motorcyclists, pedestrians, motorists, all in the race to reach- or exit- the city centre, find themselves blatantly breaking traffic rules and creating a window for disaster.
But on such a road in the past bereft of sanity, an installation of the Intelligent Transport System (ITS) seems to be solving the puzzle.
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Through analysis of historical and real-time traffic data, the ITS is able to predict congestion, thus commanding and dispatching traffic signal control that prompts traffic guidance.
The system has an automatic number plate recognition system that uses visual character recognition on pictures to read the registration plate of a vehicle.
The sensors, detecting the traffic situations at a junction, can release or stop traffic flow in neighbouring intersections. This is because they are interconnected and interdependent.
The lights “talk” to each other.
ITS employs intelligent cameras and variable timing traffic lights to manage traffic along the road, a classic demonstration of the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Traffic snarl-ups and gridlocks cost Nairobi Sh50 million per day, according to a Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) report. Considering the stress it induces on motorists and air pollution, the cost is a staggering Sh100 million a day.
Courtesy of the ITS, accidents have reduced dramatically along Ngong Road, where the project was piloted. The flow of traffic is unusually smooth.
Even the boda boda, not famed for observing rules, have now towed the line. The riders are controlled and seem to be in no particular rush, and this is a rare sight.
They wait patiently at the traffic lights. Perfunctorily, they check their mobile phones perhaps for a missed call or a text message.
The traffic light turns amber, then suddenly green, and a long queue of vehicles snake down Ring Road Kilimani, Nairobi.
Martin Njuguna, a boda boda rider in the city, has seen many of his colleagues crash to death and cannot overstate the importance of the traffic lights.
Most of them have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, breaking traffic rules at will and inviting the wrath of the grim reaper when it was easier to avoid it. At the Kenyatta Hospital roundabout where he sits astride his motorcycle and waits for that intermittent trip, he remembers sad moments he has encountered on Ngong Road.
“Boda bodas rush into road intersections and sometimes into the path of speeding vehicles. There have been a lot of accidents on Ngong Road, especially at the junctions,” Njuguna says.
Even pedestrians have been crushed on the busy highway in the past.
Judith Anyango agrees.
From the vantage point her shop affords her along the road, she has seen many accidents occur in her 14 years there. But now, there is a sustained order courtesy of the ITS.
There is also an improved waiting time to average 22 seconds at the junctions
The lights, through creating a seamless transport system, will boost the transport sector which contributes considerably to the economy.
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ (KNBS) Economic Survey 2019 indicated an improved performance in the transport and storage sector, with the value of output increasing by 12.1 per cent to Sh1.4 trillion.
Over 470,000 people were engaged in the transport and communication sector in the year, as direct employees. That means making road use more efficient and easy has a multiplier effect on the economy, including more opportunities for people.
And while there is more stops as the traffic lights tend to turn red and green within very short periods of time, there is a whole new order on the roads.
Unlike the deception that the many red light flashes gives, that of slower flow of traffic, there is an improved waiting time to average 22 seconds at the junctions.
There is an unprecedented efficiency and effectiveness that even naive users can already feel. The roads are safer and smoother.
“The traffic flow is so well controlled, the accidents have reduced and the congestions that were brought about by senseless overlapping and blocking of the intersection have reduced,” says Boniface Mbure, a taxi driver.
The lights turn amber, then green. Mbure’s Toyota Vitz guns forward, this time just in time to avoid another red light. You cannot help but smile at the smoothness of traffic flow.