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Rail system solution to Nairobi’s traffic mess

By Leonard Khafafa | February 6th 2019 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

A Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line cargo engine sails slowly through the Mkupe fly over heading to the port of Mombasa. [Gideon Maundu/Standard]

Members denounced it as shambolic. Employees pronounced it a travesty on the landscape. Everyone was unanimous in their loathing of structures put up in a haphazard manner all over a private members’ club in Nairobi’s Parklands area. That is, until a team of consultants hired to redress the ad hoc building decisions of club chairmen came up with a master plan. A development blue-print was created, designed to be implemented in phases. The result today is a beautiful club-house surrounded by manicured lawns, with adjoining buildings that have the perfect balance between aesthetics and functionality.

Nairobi city seems to be stuck in a wretched purgatory of traffic congestion. The Government has unsuccessfully attempted to fix the problem. The closest to any semblance of order was during the tenure of John Michuki as Transport minister. Even then, his reforms lasted only until he left office, and then the chaos returned. Perhaps therein lies the rub; that efforts to resolve the city’s infernal traffic problems are not anchored on a blue-print.

Rather, they are done on the hoof, by every new cabinet secretary appointed to the transport ministry. Exemplars of this outlook have been Governor Mike Sonko, when he attempted to ban public transport vehicles from the city centre, and the Cabinet Secretary James Macharia’s recent experiment to bar all vehicles from the Central Business District on two days in a week. They have since back-tracked on their decisions.

Elaborate interchanges

But are personal and public service vehicles, popularly known as matatus, to blame exclusively for traffic congestion in Nairobi? Not much has changed in terms of motorable infrastructure. Attempts to control traffic flow have been largely misguided with makeshift speed bumps erected on whim and poorly marked Zebra crossings on what Kenyans call superhighways. These serve as impediments rather than aids to the flow of traffic.

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In fact, the only road that has internationally accepted standards is the Southern by-pass. It has a two way traffic system with elaborate interchanges at appropriate intervals to facilitate smooth ingress and egress. And because driving is a lifeline for many Nairobians, especially in areas of the city that have scant public transit, it is imperative that the infrastructure be brought at par with the Southern by-pass, if not better.

What Nairobi needs is a mass transit system. Perhaps in appreciation of this fact, the Government has embarked on a plan to acquire buses for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The BRT is meant to decongest the city by having lanes dedicated to high capacity public service vehicles only. There are lingering issues that reveal the opacity of these plans and show them up to be extemporaneous.

South Africa

For instance, there are no additional lanes being created for the BRT. There are no footbridges or tunnels to ferry passengers across the roads to the BRT stages that are proposed to be on the inner lanes of highways. No one seems to have an explanation to why there is urgency to import high capacity vehicles from South Africa, even before the sort of infrastructure that can accommodate them is put in place; case of putting the cart before the horse.


A solution to Nairobi’s traffic headache is a light-rail system covering the greater Nairobi Metropolitan Area, an intersection of four other counties around Nairobi. Naysayers may gripe about the cost and impracticability of building a railway around crowded buildings. But as the adage goes, “anyone saying it can’t be done is usually overtaken by someone who is doing it.” Istanbul, a city in Turkey that is older than Nairobi and that is earthquake-prone, has successfully built an underground rail network.

Ankara, another city in the same country, which has far greater urban sprawl than Nairobi, is currently building its network. Kenya can also learn from its regional neighbours, who are fast learning the art of sustainable development based on a master plan. Ethiopiahas a light-rail commuter system in its premier city, Addis Ababa. Tanzania took years to plan for a BRT system. It is now operational and the envy of the region.

Because Nairobi is not only the capital of Kenya but also a vital commercial hub and regional financial centre, its investment in the transport sector must be aspirational. Leaders must anticipate future transit needs and plan accordingly. Without adherence to a comprehensive blueprint, the city may find itself going nowhere, slowly.

Mr Khafafa is Vice Chairman, Kenya-Turkey Business Council

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