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Blaming PSVs for Nairobi's traffic congestion is easy – and wrong

Thursday March 12 2015
By KWAME OWINO

Residents of Nairobi and visitors are always impressed by the slow pace of traffic in the early mornings and late afternoons.

There is little to dispute about the claim that the pace at which automobiles move on the highways around Nairobi imposes enormous costs in terms of time, spending on fuel and perhaps the anxiety caused by being unable to judge how much time is required to make it for meetings.

Understandably, there is public pressure on the county government of Nairobi, together with the State department responsible for infrastructure, to deploy fast solutions to ease traffic congestion.

No less an authority than the governor of Nairobi, with the Transport Cabinet secretary, announced a series of policy ideas intended to improve the pace of traffic flow in Nairobi.

Among the main ideas that they announced was that government would suspend issuance of licences for public service vehicles for four months. It is unclear to me why this freeze in licensing should be maintained for four months only.

Most importantly, the policy is obviously well meant but is demonstrably unjust and reflects bad economic thinking. I would bet that if the aim is to increase the pace of traffic and reduce congestion, then these results will not be achieved.

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Such a broad announcement affects the rights of a Kenyan entrepreneur who may wish to establish a business in public transportation within the city. Looking at the constitutional assurance of economic and social rights, it is debatable that either the governor of Nairobi or his counterpart in the Ministry of Transport has power to arbitrarily abrogate the rights of such an investor.

FACT-BASED POLICY

It may seem sensible that the purpose of these restrictions is to reduce what is referred to as traffic congestion, but to arbitrarily abrogate rights in this manner is not defensible.

Leaving the legal argument to one side, this injunction to limit the number of public service vehicles by restrictions on licensing is troubling. Available data shows that the overwhelming share of vehicles that come into downtown Nairobi is private vehicles.

Simply stated, the traffic congestion problem is driven by personal vehicles, not public service vehicles.

Confronted with these same facts, a more dispassionate analyst would argue that public service vehicles would be more efficient at reducing traffic congestion than the personal vehicles that have designated parking spots in city streets.

ngaratraffic

Motorists in traffic at Ngara on Thika Road on December 10, 2014. An appropriately priced congestion charge would ensure that drivers pay for occupying roads, which often become scarce resources during the busiest hours of the day. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

For all the bad driving that is attributed to public service vehicles in Nairobi, they form an important part of the solution. Policymakers find it easier to blame them for congestion because most of them are never at their best behaviour.

A hard-nosed, facts-based policy aimed at reducing the average times spent in traffic by commuters would show that public service vehicles are a superior option to private automobiles.

While announcing the new policy measures, the governor of Nairobi stated that the annual cost of time lost in traffic by commuters in Nairobi is Sh85 billion. Even accepting this estimate as accurate, it is surprising that the most efficient option for reducing this cost was hardly mentioned.

YOU DRIVE, YOU PAY

Vibrant cities that are experiencing growth are faced with similar problems, and having been persuaded by the economic cost of traffic congestion in Nairobi, the governor ought to know that an elegant, technical solution based on sound economic thinking is at hand.

That solution would be to manage the demand for roads by both public service vehicles and personal automobiles by instituting a congestion charge for all vehicles entering Nairobi’s downtown.

An appropriately-priced congestion charge would ensure that drivers pay for occupying roads, which often become scarce resources during the busiest hours of the day. Consequently, people would make the choice between public service vehicles or private automobiles according to their preferences.

While the primary purpose of a congestion charge would be to shift preferences towards more efficient use of roads, the county would also raise resources for maintaining roads.

This solution is guaranteed to improve vehicular flow substantially and thereby reduce the loss of up to two per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) attributed to traffic jams in Nairobi alone.

Commencing a discussion around road pricing in Nairobi may be politically difficult, but it is a necessary policy choice that beats the predictable path of blaming public service vehicles.

In conclusion, the technical solution is at hand, and the requirement is courage from the Cabinet secretary and the governor to deploy a solution that does not converge with public prejudice against public service vehicles, but is undeniably effective.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame 

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