The Nairobi Expressway is great, now let's look beyond the beauty

A section of the Nairobi Expressway. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

On Saturday last week, I decided to be among the pioneer users of the Nairobi Expressway.

It took me an average of 20 minutes to drive from Westlands to Mlolongo. I noted that like parking, you pick a ticket as you enter and pay at the exit.  

The view from the road is breathtaking; the city’s skyline looks and feels different. There were very few cars, and I tried to maintain the 80kph speed limit. 

If only every road in Nairobi were like that. The road is well lighted with flowers on the road demarcation.

This road is more beautiful from the top than below. It’s well-marked and wide enough. Driving is just sheer fun.  

After paying Sh720 both ways, I was left a bit emotional and made several observations. One, it’s evident that riding on this road a number of times may make one addicted to it. The fun and convenience are irresistible.  

There is no traffic jam, matatus, roundabouts or fear of pickpockets, and you do not need to spend your airtime while stuck in traffic. Such convenience far outweighs the cost.  

You also burn more petrol while in traffic. But let’s be sincere, Sh720 is not little money; it’s about 10 loaves of bread in “hustlespeak.”

I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and noted that using the road daily at Sh400 would translate into Sh146,000 a year and Sh3.9 million in 27 years. If you add the price of petrol, parking, and insurance, owning a car can become a burden.  

Two, who should be on that highway, the matatus, buses or private cars? My thinking is that it should be matatus and buses. This would encourage more people to leave their cars at home, which would, in turn, not only reduce traffic jams but also reduce greenhouse emissions. I have evidence that private cars, not matatus cause traffic jams. Do you recall the heavy jam in the city when matatus were on strike? 

Three, what incentives should we offer to motorists to use the road because it needs to pay itself off? Do we have off-peak hour rates? What about weekend rates? Is there a discount if I pay in advance - monthly or yearly?  

Four, my experience left no doubt that we underestimate ourselves.

By building this road, we can now focus on bolder projects, maybe a triple-decker road. The expressway leaves no doubt that our national dreams are valid.  

Five, the road is being commissioned at the wrong time. With high fuel prices and the Covid-19 aftermath, the demand may not be that big enough. 

A section of the Nairobi Expressway. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Six, contrary to popular belief, this expressway will not end the traffic jam in the city. In fact, as the name suggests, the road is for those with no business in the city. The road has no exit or entry into the central business district (CBD) at University Way or Kenyatta Avenue.  

Seven, the only way to end traffic jams in the CBD is to do away with roundabouts and rely less on roads.

We can be bold and build underground rail or sky trains to avoid the water underground. 

Clearly, the city has grown faster than its infrastructure. What of Cable cars and drones in future?  Eight, will this road become a status symbol like residences, cars, and schools?

What does it feel to be stuck in a jam when there is an empty road above you?

Some could argue the same applies to hospitals, schools, hotels, and more expensive houses being roomier.

My worry is that we are slowly institutionalising inequality. Alternative roads should be as good as the expressway except for the payment. The new road should give us a choice and not a bad one. Any national project should benefit as many citizens as possible. 

Nine, by paying for roads, the concept of public goods gets a new meaning. It’s now possible to exclude some people from such a good. 

In London and other more developed cities, there are special lanes for buses.

Can we have special lanes for matatus that we seem to hate despite there being no better alternative? Ten, once we start collecting tolls on this road, it will be hard to wean ourselves off it.

I even fear more roads will be tolled despite the cost of fuel. Will that discourage us from seeking alternative revenue streams? Why do we believe car owners have money?

The car has been around for more than 130 years. It’s time to demystify it. 

The operations of the expressway should be based on reality. It should not cut the city into two, with a majority of Kenyans still having to walk.

We need more overpasses and underpasses on this new road.  

 Finally, any road should increase the efficiency of the economy, moving as many goods or people at the lowest possible cost.  Does that apply to the expressway?