City with rich transport history faces traffic nightmare

Wednesday December 11 2013

Vehicles stop as digital traffic lights control

Vehicles stop as digital traffic lights control the jam in Nairobi on August 04, 2013. PHOTO : Denish Ochieng 

Douglas Galton Fenzi, who was the first man to drive from Mombasa to Nairobi, went on to found the Automobile Association in Kenya and is remembered by his monument next to the General Post Office.

That feat was in 1919, and Nairobi had slowly grown as a town after being established as the railway headquarters in 1899 and Administrative Headquarters of the then British East Africa Protectorate in 1907.

It is ironic that a city with such a rich history of transport faces among the biggest challenges in the world. Traffic congestion, road accidents and the development of an inconvenient and unreliable public transport system are but a few.

At one point, roads were designed to accommodate the rickshaws and carts that were the main form of transportation before the introduction of cars.

Public transportation, though, began on a formal note in 1934 with the establishment of Kenya Bus Service (KBS), then owned by both the United Transport Overseas Limited and the Nairobi City Council.

KBS had monopoly rights to operate within the Nairobi city boundaries, a right that was suppressed in 1973 by a presidential decree authorising matatus to operate paid transport of persons without a licence (a change of policy in 1984 required them to have a PSV licence).

By 1986 KBS were operating 90 different lines covering 1,867.6 kilometres. Their fleet of 293 buses carried over 300,000 passengers per day.

They faced stiff competition from matatus, who operated on same line numbers (thus the various route numbers we use today) and also formed associations.

In 1986, the Nyayo Bus Service began and grew to a fleet of 89 buses within two years. Eventually expanding to over 300 vehicles, poor management saw many buses out of service. By mid-1995 the buses disappeared from the streets.

As a response to the difficulties facing Nairobians, Kenya Railways started a commuter service on their existing rail network that grew to cover four major lines transporting an average of 15,000 passengers per day. Last year a line to Syokimau was added, the first track to be laid in almost a century.

A major change came about with the “Michuki Rules” (Legal Notice No. 161 of 2003). KBS had changed ownership twice since 1991 and were in heavy debt. This was like last nail in the coffin and the government opted to licence other bus companies to operate within the CBD.

Market demands have forced these buses to operate with no fixed scheduling, no fixed fares and fixed pick up and drop off points. Rowdy touts and conductors are common while the hunger to maximize profits is seen in reckless driving.

The ‘no-standing’ passengers rule in buses lead to an increase in the number of PSV vehicles on the road and investors opted to have minibuses than bigger buses.

What is the way forward for Nairobi? Mobility is one of the most important aspects for any progressive economy. For the country to get to be recognized as a world class city by 2030, there is urgent need to have a sustainable, equitable and efficient transport system. Goods need to be efficiently moved from producer to consumer while people need to move from home to work and vice versa.

As we progress as a city, we should not make the mistakes that other developed countries have made. We ought to avoid the conventional short term solutions for the benefit of a few but come up with long term sustainable solutions then will help the majority. Without this, we will not solve the congestion problem.

The recent trend has been to construct more roads. Roads are necessary, missing links and by passes save people time and de-congest the existing framework. However, with the population of Nairobi set to be over 14 million in the next 30 years there are only so many roads we can build.

Tradition dictates that when traffic flow exceeds road capacity, lanes should be added. We do not realize that this makes it more attractive for people to drive personal cars. With the increasing urban population, we end up with more car traffic congestion returns at a larger scale.

Building motorways and detour roads (there are exceptions) to solve transport problems or building flyovers to overcome congestion are counter-productive measures. Additionally, once we provide more space for cars, we produce an artificial demand for long distance trips and destroy the opportunities for the local scale.

The city needs an agreeable urban transport system in which the car is under the control of the administration and society and not the other way round. These lessons can be learnt from the experiences of cities like Melbourne, New York, and Boston but the best examples were the eventual destruction of Birmingham’s ‘Concrete Collar’ and removal or Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon highway.

Experience from Vienna (Austria), Curitiba (Brazil) and Bogota (Colombia) shows that the acceptance of public transport reduces congestion drastically. There is urgent need to establish a better public transport system for citizens. A system that will not be looked upon to benefit certain classes of society but is available for all, meeting the basic demands of all. Punctuality, speed, easy accessibility to terminals are critical for this to happen.

Curitiba and Bogota both opted to use of Bus Rapid Transit. Here, Buses are given designated lanes on roads that are separated from other lanes either through grade separation or a barrier. The system works on major corridors with other vehicles feeding it with passengers from arterial roads. A similar system was launched in Lagos last year and Dar es Salaam is also preparing for a similar launch.

Light Rail Transit is also another possible means. This rail system that utilizes predominantly reserved but not necessarily grade separated rights of way. They carry large numbers of passangers along major routes at moderate speed and maintaining timely schedules. The LRT System in Tunis was established in the mid-80s and has 66 stations on 5 major lines that cover the city. There has been talk of Kenya Railways intending to set up LRTs on several routes: Nairobi-Githurai, Juja Road, Jogoo Road, Ngong Road, Outer Ring Road and Waiyaki Way.

An interesting but yet to be explored way of transportation are Cable Ways. These have traditionally been associated with alpine ski resorts and movement over geographical barriers.

Recently, they have been successfully used by some cities as a means of urban mass transit. They provide a viable and affordable way of supplementing urban transport.

Not only do they pass over barriers, provide a safe means of travel, they also require minimum land use, are completely independent of the other existing means of vehicular transportation and are much cheaper to install than LRT and BRT.

They also offer easy integration with other modes. This was first tried in Medellin, Colombia in 2006 as a cheap, fast and safe way of transporting people. They now move up to 40,000 commuters daily and over 20 cities around the world are now looking into this system. Algiers are currently building 5 separate lines; while Lagos launched a similar project this year.

Though over 47% of Nairobian’s make their trips by foot, pedestrians have been the most neglected travellers. The city has very poor footways; pedestrian facilities like footbridges and crossings are below standard and there is a general lack of respect of pedestrians by drivers. Pedestrian deaths are commonplace.

The CBD, with a majority walking populace within it, has only one walkway – the Aga Khan Walk and one wide pavement on Mama Ngina Street. Cyclists are even more endangered with no bicycle lanes on most roads. Recent road construction has attempted to add cyclists lanes but it is said that ‘a bicycle lane that is not safe for a 9-year-old, it not safe at all.’

It is important not to plan our city centering on vehicles but based on the movement of people. Planning around massive highway construction will keep us rotatin around the same problem. Los Angeles, Beijing and Sao Paolo have all experienced the consequences of putting primary emphasis on road building as a solution to decongestion.

Safe pedestrian movement, efficient public transportation and promotion of non-motorized transport ensure the safety of the people and also brings efficiency to the entire system as its focus is human movement and not vehicular. It is the people who are moving from one place to another and not their cars.

Mass transit should not be seen as ‘A system for the poor’ but one for all to effectively move around the city in a timely, predictable and comfortable manner. If it is looked at as a system for the poor, it will remain a poor system.

A world class urban transport system would provide easy, safe and affordable access across the city of Nairobi to all.