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Understanding Nairobi’s Traffic Congestion Challenge

Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya is one of the most congested cities in the world. The government of Kenya estimate that $1billion is lost in productivity because of the congestion. Numbeo Global Traffic Index that measures commute times and efficiency of traffic system ranked Nairobi the 7th most congested city in the world. The index identified that it took 57 minutes commute time in Nairobi. While Nairobi’s traffic congestion is already alarming, the traffic congestion is of concerning to the potential and growth trajectories.

In 2014, as the Master Plan of Nairobi was being developed, 40.6 percent of all trips in Nairobi were made on foot, 39.7 percent of the trips are made by public transport. Only 13 percent of the trips are made by private vehicles. While private vehicles constitute only 13 percent of the trips in Nairobi, they are already choking the roads and they are on a sharp rise. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), estimates that 8 000 new vehicles are being registered every month. As 13 percent of private vehicles are already choking Nairobi with congestion any further increase in private vehicles also increase the congestion.

Several attempts have been made to address traffic congestion that is choking Nairobi. In 2019, the Government of Kenya allocated 200 billion Kenyan Shillings to projects that sought to reduce traffic congestion in Nairobi. Previously, in January 2014, the then Governor of Nairobi, Evans Kidero set up the Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee. The committee suggested increasing road capacity to accommodate more vehicles. The interim report published by the committee in June 2014 recommended the need for expansion of feeder roads, dualisation of major roads. The committee also suggested decongesting the city centre by restricting parallel transport (matatus) from the Central Business District. To cater for private vehicles after suggesting restricting parallel transit from CBD, the committee proposed increasing parking space in the CBD.

The Suburban Legacy

Nairobi, like most African cities, suffers from the suburban legacy left by the colonial administration. The suburban nature of Nairobi where residents live predominantly in suburban areas and commute to the city centres daily as a place of work is the biggest driver of traffic congestion. The set up where suburbs are predominantly residential and the city centre is predominantly commercial is unique to African cities, however. In cities across the world particularly Europe, there is a significant proportion of urban living versus suburban living. With urban living in European cities, people can take all forms of transport to work that reduce traffic congestion such as walking, cycling, and public transit. It is different from suburban living were commuting is long and has significantly high use of private vehicles.

The reasons for suburban nature of Nairobi and broadly of African cities go back to late 19th century Europe. In the late 19th century, working class protests emerged across European cities over poor living conditions in crowded and unsanitary tenement housing. It became evident to industrialists and city authorities that dilapidated tenement housing was a powder keg for social unrest. This led to the adoption of suburban living as an ideal form for a sense of family in healthy areas of the cities. In colonial Africa where significant urban development arose in late 19th century, European settlers adopted the same suburban living as a spatial form that puts potential social unrests under control. This became characterised as residential racial segregation where natives lived in different suburbs from that of the settlers.

Decades after the end of colonialism, urban planners in Nairobi are still to come up with plans to turn Nairobi from its abnormally suburban nature to a city that is predominantly urban in residential living. Without such planning intervention, Nairobi will continue to be predominantly a suburban city. People will continue to commute back and forth between their suburban homes and their place of work in the city centre. It chokes the roads with traffic especially during peak hours. Traffic congestion from this suburban spatial form cannot be solved by increasing the supply of road infrastructure, the vehicular traffic will continue to grow and congest the expanded roads in the long run.

The Tragedy of Nairobi’s Environmentalism

The significantly high traffic congestion in Nairobi cannot be explained only by the suburban nature of the city given that several African cities with such legacy do not have congestion of that extent. Contributing to the congestion is the spatial form of Nairobi’s city centre, which is characterised by several environmental buffers. Located on an environmentally sensitive area for a city, Nairobi has been subject to several environmental problems. As the origin of its names tells, Enkare Nyirobi (a place of cool waters), Nairobi comprises of several rivers and streams running through the stream. In the age where rivers and streams are now protected by environmental buffers, the city centre of Nairobi is no longer characterised by the gridiron street pattern, which maximises traffic flow. In most parts of the city centre, cul-de-sacs exist which choke the city centre with poor connectivity. This environmental protection puts the city in such a dilemma on how to balance environmental sustainability and traffic flow efficiency. Eventually the road connectivity of Nairobi’s city centre cannot be improved by building superhighways while maintaining a suburban type of road network. It challenges the environmental agencies and traffic agencies in Nairobi to rethink how they can strike an equilibrium given that traffic congestion cause more problems to the environment through automobile pollution and worse suburban sprawl.

Spatial Viability of Public Transit

 Several measures have been put up to introduce public transit in Nairobi. The city is on schedule to introduce the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to complement the commuter rail. While public transit is upheld as a sustainable and inclusive solution to solving traffic congestion, its viability is of crucial importance if the City of Nairobi is to implement it successfully. Deriving from the suburban nature of Nairobi, spatial viability of public transit need to be evaluated. This is in terms of the volumes of passenger traffic, bidirectional traffic, mix of land uses, passenger replacement. Key lessons can be drawn from South African experience regarding financial and spatial viability of operating BRTs. It is crucial for Nairobi to consider the fundamentals of sustaining BRT if they are going to be financially and spatially viable.

The Political Economy of Congestion Management

As various solutions are proposed to address congestion in Nairobi, a pattern emerges on how the solutions unfold. Town planners, who are professionals with expertise on planning cities and managing urban growth have been suggesting sustainable solutions to address the congestion problem. They have been suggesting adoption of sustainable public transit among others. While most of these suggestions are noble, they are not getting the attention they deserve as some of the solutions that worsen the congestion problem are adopted. This has to do with the political economy of managing congestion.

Cities under the capitalist system are driven by the embedded growth obligation. The idea that to sustain a society of ever increasing population and needs, we have to sustain growth whether through actual growth or simulated. This is the reason behind continuous growth of suburbanisation. In transport, this has been the same, the more lucrative solutions are to do with increasing supply rather than managing demand, increasing road infrastructure boost the economy through more investment, creation of employment and as cars increase on the road, it generate revenue for the city and national authorities such as through fuel levies, and other taxies.

One of the complexities in addressing traffic congestion in Nairobi has been the focus on increasing supply of transport infrastructure, particularly infrastructure that serves private transport. Major approaches to traffic congestion management have been through the building of more highways and traffic interchanges to accommodate more traffic. Regardless of the increasing highway construction in Nairobi such as the Thika Superhighway, roads have continued to be choked with congestion.  To overcome the complexity of convincing policymakers to adopt sustainable solutions to traffic congestion, town planners require to be strategic on how they pitch their alternatives to sustaining economic growth whilst sustainably managing traffic congestion.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.

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