Nairobi was recently celebrated as the smartest city in Africa by The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), but a quick scan of the main city streets and highways casts a shadow of doubt upon this conclusion.
From impatient motorists cursing over the din of idling car engines and blaring horns to the gossipy morning radio talk shows forced down the ears of commuters by matatu crew, Nairobi, to a visitor, does not look and sound that “smart” and “intelligent”.
The morning and evening rush hours are the worst, and a casual scan of the major highways funnelling workers into the city every morning gives one a sinking feeling. Nairobi, it seems, is determined to maintain its status as the biggest parking lot south of the Sahara.
In 2012, the IBM Commuter Pain Index (what an apt name for a survey!) ranked Kenya’s capital the fourth most congested city in the world. The ballooning traffic has been attributed to many factors, ranging from a surge in private vehicle ownership to ineffective traffic flow regulation and poor planning of the city itself.
Criminal gangs have also found a new target as commuters and private vehicle owners become lame ducks as they sit out evening traffic.
Dozens of mobile phones, car headlamps and side-mirrors are snatched on a daily basis on this smart city as the owners watch helplessly — and sometimes even smile in mild amusement.
They gave up a long time ago, and there is no reason to fight a battle you will lose anyway.
Eric Mathenge, a Nairobi-based IT consultant, is just one of the thousands of Nairobi workers for whom sitting in traffic for hours has become the order of the day.
In a world where people spend an average of eight days every year sitting in traffic, according to the Commuter Pain Index mentioned earlier, Eric spends at least one month per year waiting in traffic to and from his office. This is almost twice the 21 days most employees get for their annual leave.
“And this is only if we assume every day is a good day,” he says. “I spend about three hours in traffic on weekdays, but there are days when the wait can be as long as five hours.”
He lives in Rongai, a growing suburb less than 20 kilometres away in Kajiado County, but which has been pejoratively nicknamed “diaspora” because of the long hours it takes to commute to the city.
“A good day means I leave my house at 6am so that I can make it to the office by 7:45. I also leave very late for home, at 7pm, in order to avoid most of the gridlock. If I am not waiting in traffic, I am waiting in my office for traffic to ease up.”
But waiting, it has been said, is one of the hardest things for human beings to do. That is why some, like Njeri Gitau, have come up with ingenious ways to make up for the idle time as they wait to get to their various destinations.
Njeri, a human resource officer working in Westlands, has to commute 11 kilometres across the city from her house in Buru Buru. She says she spends an average of four hours in traffic daily, and often one of these four hours is spent in a queue at the bus station in the evening.
“I had to develop a habit of reading in the matatu. So when I board the bus I always make sure I am armed with a book and good music on my phone. I used to do the same even back when I was in college and had to commute from home,” she says.
But time is money, and while commuters may come up with creative ways to reduce anxiety and manage frustrations while waiting in traffic, some financial losses resulting from traffic delays cannot be easily redeemed.
An estimated Sh37 billion is lost every year from man-hours lost waiting in traffic, including the fuel motorists burn and the resultant pollution, reveals a 2014 interim report by the Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee.
Anecdotes of people missing important flights and important appointments are endless. Relationships have been jeopardised by traffic, and local artiste Rabbit even has a song titled Niko kwa Jam, Na-come (I’m in Traffic, I’m Coming).
Criminals have also noticed the traffic situation, and they have not been lax in taking advantage of it. If you are reading this and live in Nairobi, chances are that you or someone you know has had their phone snatched through the window of a matatu while sitting in traffic.
HOTBED OF CRIME
Achieng Ochieng’s has been there, experienced that: “On the fateful evening I was in an Eastlands-bound matatu,” she remembers. “We were stuck in traffic on the service lane just outside Nakumatt, Moi Avenue. I was on my phone, browsing social media.
“The window was locked. Suddenly a hand emerged from nowhere and snatched my phone. It happened so fast. I don’t know how he opened the window. Before I could react, the man had disappeared into the maze that is Nairobi evening traffic.”
It is almost comical, and many who have fallen victim to these petty crimes are often left laughing at themselves and their situation. But it should not be funny, and the crime is not petty. Some of the gadgets snatched are smartphones worth as much as Sh50,000.
Dan Ojwang, who has had the side mirrors and wheel caps of his car stolen several times while stuck in traffic — and once while his car was in a street-side parking lot in the CBD — cannot understand how low the city has sunk.
“The first time I was on Haile Selassie Avenue just near Wakulima Market at around 11am. A young man just came and pried loose one of my wheel caps and disappeared into the crowds,” he recounts.
Although it cost him only Sh1,000 to replace the stolen cap, Dan’s second encounter with the traffic robbers was costlier.
“It was just a few days ago, on February 10. I was stuck in traffic at Uhuru Highway just above the railway underpass near the Haile Selassie roundabout. I noticed this young man hovering about my car with a plastic bag in his hand but assumed he was just another hawker,” narrates Dan.
Before he knew it, the young man had stripped the cover of his car’s side-mirror and disappeared into the forest of cars. Dan instinctively jumped out of his car in pursuit but was advised by other motorists of the folly of his actions.
“They told me the thugs usually carried knives and I was risking my life running after them. The stolen side-mirror cover cost me Sh3,500 to replace,” he says.
Achieng’s and Dan’s cases are glimpses into the worrying side-effect of increased traffic in the city. Most victims of such crimes have also grown accustomed to the incidents, and a sense of apathy and cynicism seems to have permeated the city.
Little surprise, then, that numerous plans and talks of plans to decongest the city are, to most Nairobi motorists, idealistic boardroom talk that has little contact with reality.
Being “realistic and practical” about the traffic situation, it seems, has taken an ironic shift from finding ways of decongesting the city to finding ways of adjusting to the status quo.
This sense of resignation was evident in a tweet by Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero on January 26 this year, when he said in response to the worrying traffic situation in the city: “I propose that people should go to work very early in the morning like me.”
As Mr Kidero wakes up early to beat traffic, a report by a team he commissioned last year to find ways of easing traffic congestion in the city is waiting for his action.
The report, by the Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee (TUDC), proposes several solutions to the current crisis in the city.
“Decongestion (of) Nairobi requires a multi-faceted and integrated approach, which goes beyond (the) simple solutions of infrastructural change by increased lanes and roads,” reads the report. “This survey noted that the traffic congestion challenges in Nairobi are as a result of past poor planning for the increased population and vehicles.”
Other proposed stop-gap solutions to the traffic menace include the strict enforcement of route licenses; restriction of cargo deliveries to night hours or the weekends in the CBD; and the reorganisation of taxis through zoning, encouraging circulation rather than parking.
The long-term solutions proposed by the report are coupled, or rather, caveated, with an admission that the city planners of yore grossly underestimated how fast and how much the number of car owners in Nairobi would rise.
“A long-term approach involves urban planning and design that can have a huge impact on levels of future traffic congestion. A radical long-term approach is car-free cities, car-light cities, and eco-cities designed to eliminate the need to travel by car for most inhabitants,” the reports reads.
Even though the government has largely chosen to see and address the traffic problem in Nairobi as merely an infrastructural issue, the implications arising from it show it is a much graver socio-political malady.
The criminal culture developed from the inconvenience has now become a thriving economic sector. Many motorists who have had their side mirrors and headlamps stolen are no longer even ashamed of saying that it makes more sense to buy replacements from the black markets being fed by these thieves.
Dan, the motorist who has had his side mirrors and wheel covers stolen several times, even suspects he may have bought back his own. But, he says, the system is too broken for him to even make a big deal out of it.
Who will deliver Nairobi from the hole it has dug itself into? Or should everyone just set back their alarm clocks by a few hours, as proposed by Governor Kidero, and hope everything will work itself out?
If these questions sound even remotely rhetorical, that’s probably because they have become so.
How other cities dealt with the problem
Nairobi is regarded as one of the worst places to drive on earth.
Ever congested and immobile, it is also home to some of the world’s most unruly drivers. Here, how other cities rethought their metro transportation, and what the city can do to lessen the pain:
São Paulo, Brazil
The city of São Paulo has the world’s sixth worst traffic jams.
It is the most populous city in Brazil and the twelfth most populous in the world (11 million, according to a 2013 census).
São Paulo holds the dubious record of having had the world’s longest combined traffic queues — 309 kilometres — which occured on the evening rush hour of November 15, 2013.
Several approaches have been used to congest the city, including road space rationing and controlling the number of vehicles into the city by the last digit of the plate number during weekdays.
But these attained little success, and the strategy was in 2008 expanded to also include restriction of trucks and light commercial vehicles into the city.
China holds the world record for the longest traffic jam, chalked in August 2010 when a single bumper-to-bumper extended beyond 100 kilometres in Hebei province.
The streets were turned into a parking lot for 11 days as the gridlock proved unmanageable.
Decongestion approaches in Beijing include limiting the number of new plates issued to passenger cars to 20,000 a month and barring cars of non-Beijing plates from entering certain areas of the city.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Officially the most congested city in the Middle East, Dubai has limited parking space, forcing vehicles to drop and pick people and goods in the middle of major streets.
Car ownership is one of the leading causes of the traffic headache, with the city boasting a car population of 541 cars for every 1,000 people.
Dubai’s decongestion strategy is to reduce the number of private cars into the city by encouraging pooling, limiting access by the last digit of number plates, encouraging bus services for employees and banning trailers, trucks and other heavy or long vehicles for a certain period every day.
There is also a limiting parking charge of about Sh2,000 per hour in the central business district.
Alternative methods of travel within the city are provided by effective public bus, taxi, metro, tram and water transport systems.
New Delhi, India
The Delhi metropolitan region has 11.2 million vehicles, and the city centre bears half of these cars.
The strategy for decongestion is to encourage usage of public transport in the city. In the 1930s, the public transport was privately operated, but in 1948 the public Delhi Transport Corporation was established, followed by the Delhi Metro and a rapid transit system in 2002.
The traffic menace has also been alleviated by use of dedicated bus lanes, as well as metro, mono-rail and light rail systems.
In 2011 private vehicles accounted for only 30 per cent of the total demand for transport in Delhi, while the rest of the demand was met largely by buses, auto-rickshaws, taxis, the rapid transit system and railways.