Decongesting the city proving a political hot potato for Johnson Sakaja

Three years ago, the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA) estimated that it takes a traveller about 57 minutes to complete a journey that could have taken less time were the roads clear.

"This costs the economy an estimated Sh100 billion annually. The traffic conditions have continued to worsen due to increased motorisation brought about by increased economic activities," said NaMATA in a public statement on September 24, 2019.

The authority blamed lack of a scheduled public transport system and an elaborate non-motorised transport network as part of the problem contributing to traffic jams that start building up along Mombasa Road, Jogoo Road, Juja Road, Ngong Road, Waiyaki Way and Thika Superhighway, with the spill-over being felt in the CBD where several efforts to address the chaos have been futile.

Lack of an organised non-motorised transport encourages use of personal cars even over short distances when alternatives could be cycling, walking or public transport.

The unveiling of Green Park terminus is the latest bid in a series of previous failed efforts to stop overflow of vehicular traffic into the CBD. The facility was expected to accommodate matatus plying Ngong Road and Langata Road but operators along the two targeted routes declined to move there after several failed test runs.

Commissioned by retired President Uhuru Kenyatta in November 2020, the Sh250 million terminus, complete with a police post, dispensary, restaurants, supermarket, modern ablution and restrooms was built to restore order along congested CBD streets.

Defunct Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) was the brainchild behind the project whose implementation is now marred with controversy after operators of long-distance matatus and shuttles also resisted plans to relocate there from the CBD.

The operators moved to court, which granted their prayers. When he officially opened the terminus, Governor Johnson Sakaja directed long-distance matatus to end their journeys at the facility starting December 1, 2022.

"There are some who have gone to court to seek orders but they will not succeed. All operators prefer this space. This is a greener space where people can enjoy and breathe fresh air as compared to the CBD," said Sakaja.

Matatu Owners Association (MOA) Chairman Simon Kimutai, while accusing both NMS and Sakaja of failing to hold consultations with stakeholders, maintained the location of the terminus is not ideal for their transport business.

"Unless wide consultations are done, that project will be another white elephant. The problem is in Kenya, people make and impose decisions on others yet the law is clear on public participation," he said.

Mairura Omwenga, a city planner, says resistance will always arise as long as planning is done in a piecemeal manner. The University of Nairobi lecturer is of the view that a comprehensive and integrated plan is the solution to transport challenges in the city.

"Such a plan will bring on board views of all stakeholders as well as capture all elements of transport, including location, population and vehicular volume among other critical issues linked to a smooth transport system," said Omwenga who is also the chairman, Town and County Planners Association (TCPAK).

Another concern raised by the don is lack of clarity on who is exactly in charge of transport in the city.

"We have too many players in the transport sector with competing roles and interests; it is not clear who between the county and national governments is in charge of transport," said Omwenga.

Once Green Park was fully operational, the next phase was to establish Fig Tree terminus near Globe Cinema Roundabout to accommodate matatus plying Thika Superhighway and Juja Road, Desai and Park Road terminus for long-distance PSVs from Mt Kenya region and Muthurwa terminus for matatus plying Jogoo and Lusaka roads.

Like his predecessors, the going is getting tougher for Sakaja who had in his campaign manifesto promised to streamline public transport and decongest the city.

Governors Evan Kidero and Mike Sonko tried to decongest the CBD but failed, following stiff resistance from cartels controlling the informal matatu business, matatu owners and operators.

Now it is the turn of Sakaja who is already feeling the pressure after Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua joined the fray in a matter that has become a hot potato to handle.

The DP recently warned Sakaja against moving long-distance matatus and shuttles from the CBD.

"We don't want to move with such speed. Any decision to remove matatus will not be allowed; that is not possible. I don't want to disturb the traders," said the DP while cautioning Sakaja against making unilateral decisions without consulting matatu owners and operators.

Gridlocks have been ceaseless from the time when the city was being run by Nairobi City Council whose exit heralded the era of the devolved government. It had been expected that by virtue of being more organised, the county government would restore order. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.