Thank you for your informative articles on car and transportation in general every week. Since you are possibly now the most read expert on matters transport (and we know you have a civil engineering background not a BA in mass communication), what would be your free off-the-cuff advice to the transport ministry on the proposed Nairobi Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system?
You can touch on buses, lanes, stages, traffic, car-free days, and its management — the whole hog, as they say.
No, I do not have a civil engineering background, though I do have an interest in the field. My academics are founded on sciences — mathematics and physics to be exact.
What you guess correctly is the absence of a BA in mass communication. I did offer free advice on the overhaul of this country's transport system last year, but it was not off the cuff.
It came after a working week spent in Sweden at the hands of Scania AB and they taught me a lot of things besides showing me a whole host of possibilities which I then distilled into a lengthy write-up in early November that was published at Scania's behest by Nation Media.
Our transport system cannot continue as it is. In its current form, it is what we call “unsustainable”.
The numbers of cars on the road are swelling exponentially, there is an over-reliance on fossil fuels, we have an archaic road network despite the flashy new thoroughfares being constructed, public service transport is a manifestation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and road safety is a joke.
I'm all for the creation of a bus rapid transit system. The natural reaction to this from selfish and myopic “investors” is “What about us?”
Well, get on board the bendy-bus, Mr or Mrs Entrepreneur. One’s status as a player in the public transport sector does not necessarily translate literally to having a vehicle on the road.
Of particular irritation are the 14-seaters, paragons of inefficiency in all forms: as investments, for the environment and for traffic set-ups.
Large-capacity vehicles are the way to go, more so in developing metropolitan areas seeing an upsurge in human occupation, such as the majority of urban centres around the country and the capital in particular.
Get rid of the 14-seaters (to begin with, 25-seaters may follow afterwards) to create room for BRT lines.
The late Hon John Michuki compelled and harangued private operators to merge into saccos in spite of a lot of hemming and hawing from undesirable elements who wished to continue operating as outlaws. That means that these operators can be forced into even bigger saccos as well.
Let the government do that so that each BRT corridor has a maximum of 4 companies operating along it. Three of these lines will be coalitions of existing saccos who will pool their resources to buy these admittedly expensive buses.
The fourth BRT line will be operated by the government to provide checks and balances against innocent passengers being held hostage through industrial action and random fare hikes as private operators are known to do every now and then.
A good example is one of the continent’s first BRT systems, the Rea Vaya shuttling linking the Johannesburg CBD, Braamfontein and Soweto in Mzansi. It has fallen prey to industrial action by operators several times.
To even the playing field and prevent the proliferation of cartels, each BRT line operating on a given route will have the maximum number of operational buses capped at a specific figure to be established through research; what is known as PPHPD — passengers per hour per direction.
The government operated BRT can be manned by personnel from the National Youth Service.
So what happens to the current crop of PSVs? Half of them need to be scrapped anyway; they are barely functional death-traps kept going by the sheer force of their owners’ greed and operators’ desperation. Get rid of them.
The roadworthy units that remain can be relegated to the BRT termini for deeper route penetration, since the BRT network will not cover the entire land mass of the greater Nairobi metropolitan area.
They can be registered to any of the three private lines/coalitions (and can be the point at which rogue operators get some reprieve from the authoritative presence of Babylon overshadowing their workplace).
These BRT lines could operate along five major corridors with whatever permutations they deem workable and with a hub or two (or three) within the CBD — the old Kenya Bus Station, the Railways bus station and something a bit westwards near Ngara or Globe Cinema roundabout (these are just details to be ironed out once we agree on the bigger picture).
One line could serve Lang'ata Road — Magadi Road all the way up to Ongata Rongai. The second could serve Ngong Road all the way up to Ngong Town. The third could serve Waiyaki Way all the way to the Gitaru interchange near Kikuyu.
The next one could serve Thika Road; either terminating at Kahawa or if possible go all the way to Thika town (again, details to be ironed out further down the road, in a manner of speaking). There are hundreds of other routes in between these five main arteries and those are the ones that should be populated by the survivors of The Purge, with collection points at the various BRT stops along the route. That should get rid of the so-called "matatu menace" from within the CBD.
It shouldn't be too hard to create dedicated bus lanes in the centre of these dual carriageways. Let the bus paths be single lanes to prevent competitive driving: all the BRT vehicles should be running on a timetable, which they must adhere to.
What about a breakdown, you ask. Won't that create a holdup? Yes it will, and let the errant sacco be fined heavily for it. It will teach maintenance, which has been another sore point and has been a contributory factor to not a few road accidents.
The various stops (labelled or numbered) will fit easily in these BRT lanes at predetermined intervals, with walkways/footbridges leading to them from either side of the highway instead of traffic interruption and road safety risks via pedestrian crossings.
The buses do not stop anywhere except at these numbered points. The footbridges will feed into mini bus stops where the remnants of a sanitised matatu industry await the BRT passengers to drive them closer to their homes.
The bus stops will need platforms that are aligned with the bus height (see "Bus Design"), combined with the use of Kassel curbs for better alignment/improved parking accuracy and platform extenders for wheelchair and infant perambulator use.
Accessibility and capacity are everything, really. There is no point having a BRT if each bus is going to carry 14 passengers.
The PPHPD figure mentioned earlier gives a good estimate of minimum headway and maximum vehicle occupancy but the preferred bias is fewer vehicles of higher capacity than numerous buses of lower capacity.
There is the question of standing passengers which brings about the worry of overloading; but then again one can only seat so many people in a bus which may bring issues with rush hour transportation either into or out of the city. The whole idea of the BRT is to maximise efficiency after all.
Enforcement of vehicle occupancy may be done by the recently out-of-work bus crews who lost their office from The Purge; but all in all a good number is about 150 passengers per bus (70 seated, 80 standing) maximum.
The buses themselves will have to be the articulated bendy-bus sort for high capacity routes and rigid 13-meter chassis for less busy ones.
They will need at least two sets of doors for effective passenger transition, but my own recommendation would be four (two sets on each side of the bus) for minimum loading/offloading times.
How those doors are used could vary: the doors on the right could be for boarding and those on the left for disembarking, or these duties could be separated front and back. Those are details to be ironed out in future.
To aid passenger transition even further, the use of low floor buses is strongly recommended; if possible, with the added bonus of height adjustment or what is sometimes called the "kneeling function". This makes boarding and debussing easier for the infirm. On-board ramps are preferred to platform extensions (see "Infrastructure") from a maintenance perspective, but Kassel curbs will go a long way in streamlining operations at bus stops.
The buses may have to be powered by low-cost alternative fuels or use contemporary engine technology to maximise fuel efficiency and enhance profitability from an investor perspective and minimise noise and air pollution from a socio-environmental view. You don't need a 400hp engine for BRT operation.
The BRT will need its own set of traffic lights heavily biased in its favour, and enjoy right of way advantage at intersections, second only to emergency vehicles. To prevent problems like Delhi, the bus lanes have to be fully dedicated.
Knowing Kenyans, simply painting the road surface in a prohibitive colour may not be enough to stop them from infringing on BRT space. Extra steps such as topographical differentiation or the use of bollards and dividers may be necessary.
It's easy to see where the genius behind this little brainwave is coming from but it is not really necessary. You'd be surprised that some cursory research I did earlier revealed that a lot of drivers of personal cars drive them to work because they cannot trust matatus.
Give us a clean, safe, reliable and dependable public service network and the cars will be relegated to weekend duty, they said. If we have a fully functional BRT network and a lot of the public uses it, there will be no need for car-free days since the number of cars going into the CBD will reduce naturally anyway.
That being said, let not the government impose car-free days on us and they are yet to provide an alternative that everybody is comfortable with.
They cannot force us into matatus; that is giving more leverage to opportunistic entities known to fleece their victims at whim.
Car-free days could easily see ridiculous fare hikes with bus crews working on the knowledge that city-bound working stiffs have no alternative but to get on board or get cited for truancy at work.
Arguments for BRT
The vastly wealthy and entrepreneurial Brooklyn-born poet, unaccredited alumnus of the School of Hard Knocks and businessman Sean Carter, better known to the youth as Jay Zed, once said: "Men lie, women lie, numbers don't".
The numbers speak for themselves here: in one example, the pre-BRT set-up was the transportation of 1.6 million passengers in 2700 traffic-prone standard buses. Post-BRT figures stand at 1.9 million passengers in only 630 buses, and with immunity from traffic jams. I don't think I need to add anything here.
Arguments against the BRT
The biggest detraction of the BRT was the Delhi system which had to be scrapped after a public outcry, but this outcry was occasioned by mismanagement of the system and a deep-seated failure to grasp exactly what a BRT is and is for.
Cars would sometimes violate the bus lanes, traffic jams and compromised accessibility from shoddy platform designs marred the 6km ribbon which had actually helped decongest Delhi but ended up a liability.
There are other smaller factors working against a BRT system but nothing that cannot be found in a conventional bus system anyway: insecurity being among them. There is the fear of proliferation of petty crime such as pickpocketing and more serious issues such as incidents of sexual harassment.
There is a lot more to add to this discussion (such as off-board fare collection, and more points in the pro- vs. anti- BRT debate) but these addenda can be found in the write-up I did, available on the Nation Media website.