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Dreaming big on public transportation systems

Sunday March 9 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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Do we really have to be held at ransom every time the Matatu Industry wants to sort out its problems with the government?

Last week’s traffic snarl up in Nairobi was a wakeup call to start thinking of a proper public transportation system. Nairobi’s planning has often been reactionary since the colonial times.

A 1948 report, Nairobi Master Plan for a Colonial Capital, prepared by Prof. L. W. Thornton White, L. Silberman and P. R. Anderson said:

“Nairobi started in 1896 as a transport depot on a site that was none too favourable except for the railway which reached it three years later from the coast. Since then it has grown rapidly but largely without a plan, and now, with more than 100,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest inland towns in tropical Africa …the rapid rise called for the planning and regulating of the town growth, and the present volume is the outcome of a careful study of the site and functions of the town both at present and the years to come”.

It wasn’t until 2008 when Nairobi planning got the attention of government. The planning of Nairobi and its metropolitan has gone silent in this fast growing metro.

If, God forbid, there were serious incidences on Waiyaki Way, Mombasa Road, Langata Road, Thika Road, Limuru Road and Lower Kabete Road, no one will come into or leave Nairobi.


This is poor planning on our part. In fact whenever one of these roads has some small incidence like the recent billboard collapse on Waiyaki way, the spill-over creates jams in the entire city.

Last Wednesday, matatu operators paralyzed the entire city by just blocking a few of these roads. The city fathers therefore must start working on a sustainable solution to deal with this self-inflicted problem. We can emulate other parts of the world that have built reliable transportation systems. And such infrastructure can be built without donor funding if we fast tracked automation of government. This will gives rise to productivity dividends that we can use to build, for example, an underground rail network.


The London Underground, for example, was proposed first in 1830 and construction began in 1853. Just like Nairobi, London sits on poor clay soil. By 1863 the rail was operational carrying 38,000 passengers on the opening day. By 1868 another rail project, the Metropolitan District rail was opened and complemented the underground.

Today the London Underground covers more than 400 kilometers and carries more than 1 billion passengers in a year. It is the most reliable, predictable and affordable mode of transportation anywhere in the World. It covers about 91 per cent of its cost with the balance coming from government (The government will always recoup the subsidy when people are able to work). This was foresight on the part of the British but I keep on asking myself this question: Who should be thinking how Nairobi will look like in 100 years from today?

I ask the question because there is no country that has attained middle income status without a reliable public transportation system. South Africa built an underground system between Johannesburg and Pretoria as part of preparations for the World cup. Addis Ababa is about to finish an underground transport system.

When the British built the London underground, their per capita income was $1,250, Ethiopia’s per capita income is at $859 (in 2012) compared to Kenya’s $1,125 in 2012. Although the colonial government had a Master Plan for Nairobi in 1948, much of the road reserves have been grabbed leaving no option for expansion. Hence the need to start thinking underground.

We must be cognizant of the fact that there are more civil engineers today in Kenya than Britain had in 1830’s. Our per capita income is just about that of Britain in the 19th century. Of the four factors of production, that is, land, labour capital and information, we have plenty in three of these factors and if we deal with our governance problems effectively, capital is within our reach.

We must be positively jealous of Addis Ababa for developing super highways as well as an underground rail to deal with its public transportation. It is that competitiveness that will move us forward. We have spent far too many years telling ourselves how much better we are than Somalia or Burundi. Let us break away from our short-termism and minimalist thinking and provide futuristic solutions to the masses.


In the medium term, there is an opportunity to create an investment opportunity for investors to develop an exclusive lane for buses and emergency vehicles, buy all matatus and ban any new Matatu on the road in exchange of a more organized and regulated transport system. The Government does not need to invest even a penny on this grand idea. There will be need for the government to be part of the investment and even with this provision the government need not have the money. That was why we created the private-public partnerships.

But what we need first is a well-structured request for proposal for a lead investor in Nairobi’s public transportation. In fact I offer to do this on a pro bono basis if the government commits to effectively deal with the matatus in convincing them to invest in a new special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will bring sanity to public transportation.

Further, the government commits to do the following: educate our rogue pedestrians who talk on phone and text while crossing busy roads; cancel all driver licenses till every driver re-familiarizes themselves on road use as well as courteousness; create a futuristic permanent team whose work is to leverage on smart cities concept to create the future and be responsible for master planning; ban construction of any structures (shops) within 200 meters from major roads; educate the county representatives on management of modern cities (It was the Nairobi councilors who destroyed organized garbage collection and allotted themselves tenders to “collect” garbage. Since then the entire city became a dump site); install CCTV throughout the dedicated lane and finally, develop a back end office to monitor traffic and remotely fine the offenders.

Creating commissions or committees on traffic jams will not help. We simply must roll our sleeves and start working. We have thousands of unemployed youth. We may never have these many in the days to come.

We have geologists and engineers. There is no need to tender for any foreign company to lead us on this. That is why projects are expensive. We simply need a few of our dedicated geologists, engineers and hand men. Then buy an underground drill like the one below.

We have more tools including online content to begin a grand project that will restore our pride, our confidence and face the future knowing that we can.

The British in mid-19th century did not have what we have today but they did it. Ethiopians are not rich but they have done it. Our own Yego, the YouTube javelin star leveraged the Internet to bring us pride. “Yes we can”.

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito