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How 'Happy Hour' is unlocking traffic gridlocks in Mombasa

By Joackim Bwana | September 15th 2021
Nyali Bridge. [Courtesy]

It's now taking motorists 10 minutes to Mombasa Central Business District from Nyali Bridge, a stretch of six kilometres they would ordinarily spend an hour on during traffic peak hours.

It is all about 'Happy Hour.' And no, the 'Happy Hour' has nothing to do with that period of the day when drinks are sold at reduced prices in pubs. Far from it.

'Happy Hour' is a strategy the county government of Mombasa is using to ease traffic along the roads, by allowing motorists to "break the law", for a few minutes under the watch of police officers and county traffic marshals.

So how does it work?

During 'Happy Hour', normally between 7am and 8am as well as 6pm and 7pm, vehicles are allowed to use the wrong side of the road and this is done at intervals of between five to ten minutes, depending on traffic.

For instance, if traffic is heaviest for vehicles leaving Mombasa's CBD, inbound vehicles are blocked and some of the outbound vehicles are allowed to use the wrong lanes on the other side of the road.

This is coordinated by county government traffic marshalls and traffic police officers. It starts with a county inspectorate vehicle, with a blaring siren, driving on the wrong side. Motorists have been made to automatically know oncoming vehicles have been blocked whenever they see the car with a siren driving on the wrong side. It also means some of the motorists should now start joining the lanes on the wrong side to ease traffic.

And speed is of the essence. Those allowed to take advantage of the 'Happy Hour' must do high speeds.

More traffic marshalls are normally stationed in different parts of the city to help control traffic.

After about ten minutes, the motorists are expected to go back to their lanes as the oncoming traffic is allowed to flow again.

Depending on traffic on both sides, the lanes that had been closed would be opened and the other ones closed. The cycle is repeated to ensure traffic continues to flow throughout, on both sides.

And when one side of the road is closed, motorists have two choices; to wait until their side is reopened or use other routes and later rejoin the highway. There are cases feeder roads are also closed to ensure free flow of traffic.

The initiative was introduced two years ago but only focussed on the evening traffic snarl-ups until two weeks ago when the county government extended it to morning hours.

The initiative was developed by the county traffic department in consultation with stakeholders, including the police and local traders.

The plan has massively cut traffic on the busy Mombasa-Malindi highway and eased the cost of transport as well as the cost of doing business.
It has also rendered traffic lights almost useless as they are not used during the 'Happy Hour'. Traffic lights have been blamed for contributing to the heavy traffic that has been experienced in Kenya.

This initiative, where traffic lights are switched off to allow the use of alternative means of controlling traffic, is known in some quotas as 'naked streets'.

But county officials say the 'Happy Hour' is just but a stopgap measure to deal with traffic jams in the tourist city, for now.

"The new system was to address the traffic menace in the county, especially in the evenings, but we have also adopted it during morning hours after finding it useful," says county transport minister Taufiq Balala.

He adds: "Before we introduced the system, it would take someone up to one hour to drive between the CBD to Nyali during peak hours. All that has now changed."

And with CCTV cameras along all major roads in the county, traffic marshals and traffic police officers can monitor the traffic from control rooms.

Sometimes, traffic is heaviest at the Nyali Bridge, which means, lanes to and from town would be closed many times to restore the flow.

In the morning, vehicles leaving the CBD are stopped at Sabasaba to allow those entering to use both sides of the road. In the evening, all inbound vehicles are stopped at Lights and Nyali Golf Junction to ease traffic for those leaving the CBD.

"Closing parts of the road for the five or ten minutes, under this initiative, has been working like magic," said Ms Joyce Kadenge, a motorist.

John Mugisha, a resident of Nyali, terms 'Happy Hour' as an awesome idea that is helping him to plan his day without much worry about traffic.

Mugisha says it takes him exactly 10 minutes to drive from his home in Nyali to town.

Lucy Mwaniki was surprised the first time she encountered 'Happy Hour'.

"I thought police officers and the traffic marshalls were clearing the road for some dignitary, probably heading to the airport. And for about five minutes, vehicles were using the wrong side and at high speed. It took me a week to understand the concept,” says Mwaniki.

"Traffic at the Nyali bridge has always been an issue. Sometimes, I would take two hours to reach town and over one hour just to cross the bridge in the evening. But with the 'Happy Hour', I don't have to worry about traffic anymore. I can also plan my day."

Mombasa Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Kitavi says the innovation has reduced the time and fuel used in traffic.

Kitavi says the tourism sector has also benefited as guests no longer spend hours in traffic from the airport to hotels.

"Most activities in Mombasa start at 5pm. That is also the time many people would head out to the beach or hold meetings. Most of these plans are spoiled by traffic," Kitavi says.

He adds: “The 'Happy Hour' plan has helped people move freely, in and out of the CBD. This has helped us save on time and fuel wastage. It has also improved the image of Mombasa in the eyes of tourists, especially those who arrive in the country for the first time and find it is easy to get to their hotels from the airport.”

"The county government has done a commendable job in managing the traffic despite slow infrastructural development."

The 'Happy Hour' concept has generated debate among netizens with some calling on Nairobi County to adopt it as well.

Mombasa Matatu Owners Association chairman Ali Batesi lauded the initiative saying it has helped decongest the city.

“The system has helped passengers and motorists to reduce the time spent on the road. Considering there are no alternative routes in and out of CBD, the 'Happy Hour' has helped decongest the town. Sometimes, traffic would stretch from Bondeni to Buxton and we are hoping not to go back there,” said Batesi.

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