Jennifer Wafula lives only 25 minutes or 17 kilometres from the town centre in the fast-growing multi-class Ongata Rongai suburb of Nairobi.
Her daily commute to work over the past few weeks illustrates the traffic mess the city’s residents are enduring.
The 28-year-old IT consultant spends as much time on the road — two and half hours in the morning and three and half hours in the evening — as she does at work.
The onset of the rainy season has traditionally spelt longer hours in traffic for residents of many major towns like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.
But this year, the problem has been especially bad. Unexpectedly heavy rains have combined with a witches’ brew of other factors such as poor planning and inadequate drainage to turn the roads into massive––and often flooded–– parking lanes every morning and evening.
The traffic crisis is costing the economy billions of shillings in wasted man hours, pounding an already overstretched infrastructure network and leaving city residents a disgruntled lot.
In one of the worst incidents two weeks ago, thousands of Nairobians spent up to eight hours on the road after rushing water swept across Mombasa Road sending fares soaring and triggering one of the largest tailbacks the main arterial road leading to the growing residential areas of Kitengela, Athi River and Mlolongo has known.
The traffic situation in major towns in the country—which is hardly much better in the dry season—has triggered demands for urgent measures to tackle the problem.
“If we are realistic, we will admit that we cannot grow as a nation when a large proportion of the urban population spends so many hours in traffic, and resources such as petrol that make up the bulk of our import bill are squandered in jams,” says Mr James Shikwati, head of the advocacy group Inter-Region Economic Network.
“We must look for lasting solutions to meaningfully tackle this crisis.” Analysts agree that a large number of factors contribute to the acute transport crisis on the roads in major cities and towns such as Eldoret, Nakuru, Kisii, Meru and Nakuru which only about 10 years ago did not suffer rush-hour congestion.
One of the most important changes contributing to the problem has been a surge in increased motor vehicle registrations.
This rise has been driven especially by a marked uptick in used car imports, which has turned most members of the middle class into vehicle owners.
The number of vehicles on Kenyan roads has been growing by double digits every year for the last decade.
More than doubled
In 2002, a total of 17,280 new car registrations were reported by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Five years later, that number had more than doubled to 42,008, an increase of 143 per cent.
The boom was primarily driven by an increase in bank lending from 2003, when monetary policy changes forced banks to diversify their lending portfolios from reliance on government borrowing to lending to private individuals.
The combined vehicular population was driven up even more dramatically after the Finance ministry waived the import duty on motorcycles in 2006.
The previous year, 4,494 motorcycles and autocycles were registered. Four years down the line, that figure rose to 91,151, constituting a percentage rise of 1,928 per cent.
Taken together, the total number of vehicle registrations in the country shot up from 26,024 in 2001 to 161,813 in 2009.
By contrast, road construction has not been able to keep pace with the dramatic surge in new vehicles on the roads.
Experts in the transport sector say it is time the country’s policymakers developed a holistic approach to tackle the problem.
“The middle class will only keep growing, and as you know, the first status symbol members of this group want is a car and after that, a house,” says Mr Edwin Mukabanah, managing director of the Kenya Bus Service Management Ltd.
Mr Mukabanah says the nation has to accept that the old methods of dealing with the problem are failing. “You cannot leave the challenge of keeping the traffic moving to the police alone,” he says.
“You need a traffic management unit at the Nairobi City Council and in other cities in the country. These teams should take the lead in formulating policies that reduce cars in the city.
“Such measures could include tax policies such as a congestion charge in parts of the inner central business district. The government also needs to make use of policy instruments such as staggering working hours of employees so everyone does not come into town at 8am and leave at 5pm.”
Mr Mukabanah says all these efforts at reform will fail if an efficient public transport system is not put in place. “You must have a solid and reliable mass transport system if you are to tackle congestion.
“This includes mass transit vessels such as light trains and buses. What we have now is a para-transit operation which includes 14-seater matatus and small buses.
“It is not scheduled and is not predictable. It thrives on illegality. It is profit driven. It doesn’t pay the full cost of labour, and once you are operating that kind of system in any city, everyone that can is likely to opt to move about by private means.”
Mr Mukabanah says the Southern Bypass will help to reroute traffic from the CBD. But the KBS boss says more steps need to be taken to rid the capital city of roundabouts and junctions and build more bypasses and underpasses.
Nairobi is not alone in grappling with a veritable traffic nightmare. The council in Mombasa, a city which enjoyed a relatively smooth flow of traffic a few years ago, recently published a traffic flow realignment plan.
The construction of the long-delayed Dongo Kundu Bypass is also expected to improve matters. In Kisumu, persistent jams have been witnessed along Kakamega Road, one of the main streets in the city.
Flooding on a section near Kondele, where many residents live, has resulted in persistent congestion especially when it rains in the afternoon.
The traffic crisis has triggered efforts within the country’s vibrant IT industry to seek hi-tech solutions to the gridlock.
Traffic congestion ranks as the number one topic of discussion on social media sites, alongside an unprecedented number of power blackouts in many estates, which also began with the onset of the rains.
A study by the East African branch of the tech giant IBM found that the economy loses about Sh50 million per day in traffic jams, translating into wastage of about to Sh18.3 billion annually.
Thursday’s edition of the Business Daily reported that IBM East Africa has proposed new generation road licenses installed with chips that record the offences of drivers caught driving recklessly.
A portal powered by Ushahidi has also been proposed to monitor traffic volumes in various areas by checking on mobile phone density.
Access Kenya has installed a network of cameras in various areas notorious for gridlock. The data is available for free to individuals or corporate organisations.
Ericsson Kenya has launched an initiative known as Smart Cities to enhance the flow of information among residents using smartphones.
These private sector efforts stand in contrast to the silence of officialdom whose years of neglect of road infrastructure and the drainage system have left residents wallowing in misery.
On Thursday, when raging waters rendered the stretch between Nyayo Stadium roundabout and Madaraka impassable, it was the Red Cross and not the Nairobi City Council that sent out an alert about the emergency.
“In this election year, most of our public officers are off duty. It is not that we do not have people that are talented enough to handle these issues, it is just that all the energy in terms of formulating strategies is going into the political scene.
“If we translated the zeal we see in our politics into solving problems, we would be in a better position,” Mr Shikwati says, adding that authorities must find ways to tackle problems such as insecurity which drive people to seek to go home before dark “like people rushing away from a forest because darkness has set in and lions might pounce”.