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Traffic congestion a result of Kenya’s failure to invest in public transport

Sunday May 13 2012

By RASNA WARAH ( [email protected])

Anyone who has sat in Nairobi’s torturous traffic during this rainy season must have wondered whether the city – or Kenya for that matter – has a transport policy.

And even if there was one, is it being implemented? There are many reasons why Nairobi comes to a standstill the minute the first drops of rain hit the ground.

First is the fact that the city’s drainage system leaves a lot to be desired. For some strange reason, contractors build roads, but fail to build drainage and pavements along the roads. (Shouldn’t both these be part of the road-building contract?)

On the road where I live, there are many drains, but some of them are so clogged up that when it rains, the drains overflow onto the road, adding to the many potholes that have now started to appear, partly due to shoddy construction work, and also because the road becomes a seasonal river this time of the year.

Second, and more importantly, all cities in Kenya, including Nairobi, do not have a reliable, safe, environment-friendly and regulated public transport system.

Residents of cities are overly-dependant on privately-owned matatus which obey no rules and are not regulated.


This means that anyone – and I mean anyone – can wake up one morning and decide to own a matatu. This adds to traffic congestion on our roads.

Because the matatus are individually owned, they are not subject even to those regulations that control big companies and the corporate sector, which means they enjoy a certain level of impunity that would never be tolerated in other more public transport-friendly cities or in places where litigation is a big deterrent to bad behaviour on the roads.

Most well-functioning cities have public transport systems that are not just safe, but are non-motorised. Trains and trams in these countries are the preferred mode of transport, even among the rich.

Trains can carry large numbers of people, and are more environment-friendly than cars, buses and matatus. But in Kenya, the government has more or less killed off the railway that was bequeathed to us by the British.

This means that our highways are full of trucks transporting goods to other countries as far away as the DR Congo.

On a visit to the coast recently, I was saddened to see the railway line (which I often used in my youth) lying idle and unused while the main Mombasa-Nairobi highway was jam-packed with trucks.

On a two-hour ride to Mombasa from Taita, I overtook at least 50 trucks. By my calculation, the highway is used by at least 1000, if not more, heavy-duty trucks every single day.

Who killed our beloved railway and why? In other countries (India comes to mind), the railway network left behind by colonialists was preserved and even improved on.

It was not allowed to die. But this valuable asset has been allowed to rot in Kenya. This is just madness.

In Taita, people complained about a road that was officially opened amid much pomp and ceremony more than a year ago, but which has now been abandoned by the contractor.

This means that farmers who want to sell their produce in Voi or Mombasa have to use a diversion, which is longer and full of potholes.

This has severely impacted on the economy of the region. No explanation has been given to the people of Taita as to why the road project was abandoned.

Which doesn’t mean that our parliamentarians are sleeping on the job. Last week, I received an email message announcing the new traffic rule amendments that have been passed by Parliament.

Driving on the pavement will risk a fine of Sh30,000 or three months in prison or both (matatu drivers, take note!)

Drivers will are also required to take an eye test every three years (I wonder how this rule will be enforced). The problem is, what do we do about the police officers who happily look the other way when given bribes?

One solution to Nairobi’s horrendous traffic congestion is to work from home. There is no reason why in this age of the Internet people whose work is done mainly on computers can’t do it without leaving their houses or why meetings can’t be scheduled on Skype.