The Daily Nation recently reported the Transport ministry’s plans to construct a 28-kilometre highway to address the daily traffic jam on Mombasa Road, in a bid to particularly ease transportation from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) to Nairobi’s city centre.
But though a good move, that might not be the panacea to the perennial congestion in Nairobi.
Nairobi may be growing but is not anywhere near big such cities as Tokyo. In fact, Nairobi can be considered a suburb of Tokyo — such as Shinjuku. Much like a ‘Westlands’ in the Japanese capital. In other words, the many challenges that Nairobi faces is nothing but child’s play. They require decisiveness, boldness, consistency and result-oriented policy solutions.
True, expansion of roads will increase traffic flow — but in the short term. This will attract more more settlements in the areas served by the road, causing an increase in the number of vehicles, and, after some time, traffic jams will be back. That is what happened to the so-called Thika Superhighway, which has gone back to its old days of snarl-ups.
Public transport policy should address three issues. First is competition and availability of options. Nairobi has many matatus which compete with one another but not options for travellers. When the matatus go on strike, they bring the city to a standstill because many people cannot travel.
An efficient transport sector requires options such as a light rail network running side by side with roads. This offers passengers options of using either service. Ethiopia is already doing it. Unlike roads, railways are expensive to construct but cheaper to maintain.
The existing train transport in Nairobi is not a good option. The railway lines are way off the main road arteries — such as Thika Superhighway, Jogoo Road, Ngong Road and even Mombasa Road.
To reduce traffic jam on Thika Superhighway, for instance, there is a need to convert the inner lanes on each side into railway tracks and build train stations at strategic points.
For faster movement of people to JKIA and the city centre, a railway line is critical. It will facilitate faster movement of transit passengers to Nairobi National Park or the city centre.
Then there is traffic congestion and pollution. Without an efficient public transport system, people tend to invest in private transport. Expansion of roads actually facilitates this! No wonder, private vehicles on our roads far outnumber matatus, with many of them releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere and discolouring road infrastructure and the vegetation. Even increasing parking fees alone may not solve the problem.
Third is the issue of speed. Economic transactions are based on speed. Just-in-time production is meant to reduce response time from suppliers to consumers. Business opportunities can be won or lost because of time.
An efficient transport system is, therefore, paramount if a country yearns to grow. Faster movement of labour, capital, materials, goods and consumers of goods and services ultimately result in higher economic growth and productivity.
Tokyo has a population of over 13 million. Most of the residents travel every day using a network of railway transport, both surface and underground (commonly referred to as subways). Shinjuku railway station alone handles an average of 3.5 million people — nearly the population of Nairobi.
Depending on where you are going, and how fast you wish to travel, you can catch a local train (which stops at every station), semi-express (which skips a few stations) or express (which skips many stations).
Then there are high-speed trains, called Shinkasen, bullet trains which move at a maximum speed of 320 kilometres per hour.
Some of the railway lines are managed by the government but the majority are in the hands of private companies. All the lines are in competition, which keeps fares low and predictable.
No doubt, all will benefit from a faster and efficient railway transport network, which will encourage investment in far-flung towns and reduce rent, cost of land and pollution.
Dr Akoten is a development economist. [email protected]