Our way or the highway? The better picture from Ethiopia

Saturday March 5 2016

A stretch of superhighway between their Addis

A stretch of superhighway between their Addis Ababa, and a satellite town called Nazareth in Ethiopia. PHOTO| GAVIN BENNETT 

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Anyone interested in the quality of road design and construction might learn much from a trip to Ethiopia. Or so this column’s mailbag is told.

Specifically, a stretch of superhighway between their capital, Addis Ababa, and a satellite town called Nazareth. It  is an intercity journey remarkably similar to our Nairobi-Thika link, so it would not be surprising if the two highways were almost identical,

especially as both were, in vox pop terms, “built by the Chinese”.

But that’s a glib assumption. After all, there are about two billion Chinese, so some of them are likely to be better (or worse) at road building than others. 

Take a look at the attached picture taken somewhere between Addis and Nazareth (right), and judge for yourself which country seems to have got the better bunch.

There is an obvious chasm of difference in every aspect of design and construction, from the sweeping alignment with no awkward junctions to  the smoothness of the tarmac surface (and no speed bumps), the dedicated hard shoulder,  the consistent camber

to a storm drain, the high tech crash barrier and anti-dazzle screening, the clarity of markings, the solar-powered street lighting, the clarity of road markings, the legibility of signage with lane discipline guides and both max and min speed limits.

And, if you look closely, a livestock and pedestrian-proof fence along the top of well-stabilised embankments.

This road is not some sort of science fiction demo. It is the common modern-world standard. It is exactly what any motorway — and every major intercity highway — could be and should be like.

Smoother, swifter and much safer than anything we have got. In the short term, doing it right is not much more expensive than doing it wrong; and in the long term the extra spend delivers a massive saving in time and cost to both the road user and the national

transport economy as a whole.

Ethiopia has not built this road to this standard because it is richer. But it will be richer because it has built this road to this standard! How long is it going to take us to learn such an obvious lesson? And first and above all, who is it that needs to learn it?

Despite the many and manifest defects in our own “superhighways”, our roads are getting better.  And so-called “Chinese” and “EU” projects with national policy blessing are playing a big part in that improvement. But why are “our” Chinese and “our” EU roads not more like the one in this picture. Why are they not more like the motorways in China and the EU... and Ethiopia?

Do the international donor projects deliberately down-spec what they build for us?  Or do we refuse to allow, or interfere with, their best quality designs? 

And if one of those options is not the explanation, what is? There are some huge questions being begged here. Transport management questions. Road law questions. Development questions. Social, legal, economic, political and environmental questions. And, in

the  consequential road safety arena, life-and-death questions. Kenya’s motoring public is crying out for answers... to this picture.