The construction of the 27-kilometre (km) Nairobi Expressway was one of the landmark projects in East and Central Africa. It was meant to ease traffic, transform the landscape of the city and beautify Nairobi’s skyline. It was celebrated as a lasting solution to endless traffic congestion. However, driving, cycling, walking along the road or crossing it has become a nightmare.
And as I use the road, the first person I interview is Meshack Otiso, a bodaboda rider who nearly knocks me down despite my best efforts to staple myself against the wall.
Here, along Mombasa Road, we have to share the makeshift pathway that pedestrians and motorcyclists (bodabodas) have carved out on the shoulder of the road.
Since the start of the construction of Nairobi’s landmark expressway, which set the government back over Sh70 billion, began, it has been hell for pedestrians and motorcyclists.
“We do not have lanes that we can use down there,” Otiso says, pointing at the road which, narrowed as the expressway takes up a huge chunk of the space carved out for vehicular use, is packed full with cars. “We have to follow pedestrians here.”
We are smack in the middle of the pathway and a queue of impatient motorcyclists is forming behind Otiso. I ask him a few rapid questions and let him leave.
Metres ahead, outside the gates of Sameer Business Park, two men, whose small backpacks are solidly strapped against their backs, are debating furiously.
They intend to go to town but cannot agree on what direction to take - the nearest crossing point is to the other side of the road where they can flag down a matatu.
Thomas Toro suggests they walk to GM, about 500 metres away, where there is a pedestrian footbridge, and I support his idea. The alternative would be to walk past Airtel headquarters, about three kilometres or so away from where they stand.
Sometime last year, they could cross and walk through the road which was under construction. They no longer can.
The expressway, nearing completion, has been cordoned off.
Besides, a dash through vehicular traffic gets more dangerous by the day; in between those trucks and buses, bodabodas are trying to navigate and are likely to crash into anything that comes in their way. This is as the walkways by the road become impassable by the day, even for Kenyans on foot.
The stretch to GM offers a hellish walk. The road, reduced to two lanes, is so narrow that matatus, already infamous for their tendency to break rules, squeeze out of the road, nearly driving into the trench.
On this day, the trench is full of sewage and the stench in the air is nauseating. To escape traffic congestion that is building up in the afternoon) bodabodas climb the shoulders of the road and whoever turns out more obstinate, between them and the pedestrians, can have the walkway.
More often than not, the bodabodas win. Or, not quite. It is not a smooth walkway. Rocks protrude everywhere, power cables sprout out of the edges of rocks and unending undulations mean that the bodabodas are never too far from tumbling over.
Yet they have to use the walkways as most of their passengers have, in the first place, chosen them to get them to their destinations faster.
On this stretch, eyes have to remain fixated on the pathway. A glance aside and there you are, straight down a manhole that is half-filled with sewage. The open manholes are always occurring in the middle of the pathways pedestrians have made; it seems everything has to share this space.
John Maguti, who lives in Pipeline, says it is vandals who have stolen the manhole covers. And since he regularly uses this path, he has had to almost cram where every manhole is. But he is still afraid of stumbling and finding himself down inside one.
“It is a very dangerous place. Sometimes, you will be walking on the roadside. A vehicle hoots at you at the same time as a motorbike. You try to jump away and might just find yourself in the mud or a manhole,” he says.
With a lot of excavation happening on the road, mounds and boulders of earth have been piled up on the side of the road. Most of the pile is actually mud. The pedestrians’ area has been, by this, reduced further. When it rains, it is impassable.
Maguti should not be using this walkway, he says. He is heading to offices between The Panari Hotel and Airtel Headquarters, nearer to the latter, and should just have crossed the road and taken a matatu. However, the only place he will access an avenue to cross the road once he arrives at his destination, which is on the right side of the road as you go towards town, is way further than his destination.
“That would mean I alight, cross the road and start walking back. It doesn’t make sense, so I choose to just walk all the way,” he says.
Maguti remembers that before the construction of the expressway began, trees were lining a section of the road, with a nice pedestrian walkway drawn out next to the trees. “But as they started construction, they expanded the road and started relaying the water pipes. They dug up the trees and the pavement,” he says. At the GM junction, where there is a double u-turn, bodaboda riders cringe as they watch their colleagues attempt to cross the road.
The bodabodas squeeze through the vehicles, pillion passengers holding on tight and probably saying a prayer; many have been hit at this spot. Nehemiah has just had a minor accident and his bodaboda’s right indicator dangles precariously. He also has a fresh scar on his right hand, and his jacket looks soiled.
He has been hit by a lorry (he said it was a slight scratch) but claims he is okay. He survived this one and won’t talk much about it.
But what happens at the junction scares him. One of the most daunting tasks is crossing the road at that point. “Motorists do not respect motorcyclists,” he says. “If another motorist is joining the road, or crossing, those approaching the intersection tend to slow down. When it is a motorcyclist or a bicyclist crossing, the drivers do not care.”
However, most motorists says cyclists are reckless. The motorcyclists at the GM are lobbying to have an overpass created for them, while some feel that a roundabout would be the panacea. When they come together to explain how dangerous the junction, and the u-turn, have been, fear is palpable in their voices, fury in their faces.
For a moment, they discuss a near-accident they witnessed in the morning, where some women were nearly knocked down because “barabara ni nyembamba na madereva wanataka kukimbia” (The road is narrow and motorists want to speed). Others decry the long distances to u-turns; a bodaboda dropping off a passenger at The Standard Group has to go all the way to Airtel headquarters, make the U-turn and go back to the gates of the media house, in essence covering nearly twice the distance they would have if there were a u-turn in between.
The pedestrian footbridge that sits over these motorcyclists is also rampant with mugging and pocket-picking at night, they say. “It gets very dark at night,” one of them says. “Many people do not want, at such times, to use it due to fear of losing their valuables.”
In addition, the footbridge, which was reconstructed after the original one was that looked stronger was flattened to pave way for the raised road, is long, with labyrinthine turns before it lands on the opposite side of the road.
As such, many pedestrians prefer to cross the dangerous road, endangering their lives, especially because often at night, the road is not very busy and traffic is fast.A high mast floodlight pole stands next to the footbridge, but it has not been fitted with the lights yet.
The Expressway is meant to ease the commute from Mlolongo to Westlands, with motorists who wish to skirt the city and avoid unnecessary congestion part of those paying a fee to use it. In the course of the construction, the usual traffic congestion went a notch higher.
Faith Nafula, a psychologist, says that on a day she was meant to be in an interview at KTN News, she was dismayed and anxious at sitting in traffic for hours. She nearly missed her appointment.
In such times, vehicles have had to seek alternative routes or bully pedestrians along the roadside. During the rainy season, it was worse.
Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) October, at a time when the completion rate was at 67.3 per cent, warned that there would be congestion at GM area where the new footbridge had been installed and old one was demolished.
Motorists were also warned of the same at the Bunyala roundabout and University Way roundabout where construction was ongoing.
Months later, congestion is still experienced in several spots along the road ahead of a projected opening slated for use next month.
Contacted for comment on the issues Kenyans have been grappling with during the project’s construction phase, a KeNHA official declined to comment. He said the project is of a bigger, and strategic, importance to the economy and that is what should be in the discussion.
In November 2021, at City Cabanas, a saloon car fell into a gulley that was full of water after a heavy downpour. With constant excavation along the road and sometimes no clear signage to indicate dangerous areas, drivers were at the mercy of their instincts. KeNHA had warned motorists to be careful during the rainy season, but with many sections of the road flooded, some drove straight into the floods.
Areas such as the Nyayo Stadium roundabout flooded so much so that pedestrians struggled to cross. And when the rains went, pedestrians had to do bear with clouds of dust. With the narrow roads and the tendency of motorcyclists to use pedestrians’ walkways, and with gaping manholes emitting pungent sewage, Mombasa Road now reeks of a health and physical hazard.