Seth Kerr describes how new policies slowly tackle Nairobi’s gridlock and make it easier for people to walk and cycle.
With its burgeoning economy and rapidly growing population, Nairobi has become notorious for its traffic jams. In one case, truck drivers entering the city were held up on a highway for three days. But no one faces a more challenging time on the roads than the 48% of locals who rely on their feet or bicycles to get around. Even though an estimated 15% of Nairobi’s residents use private cars as their main mode of transport, pedestrians and cyclists are frequently forced to mix with high-speed traffic and face significant danger on the city’s roads. In 2014, 507 of the 700 people killed in road accidents in Nairobi were pedestrians.
Now, after years of neglect, the issue is finally getting the attention of Nairobi’s leaders.
In March 2015, the Nairobi City County Government (NCCG) released the Nairobi Non-Motorized Transport Policy (NMT), the first significant effort in the city’s history to address the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, in collaboration with local and international organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Kenyan Alliance of Residence Associations (KARA).
“The Nairobi Non Motorized Transport Policy came about in response to traffic congestion in Nairobi, a high number of pedestrian fatalities and environmental concerns like CO2 emissions,” explained Carly Koinange, a manager at United Nations Environmental Programme, where she leads the Share the Roads Programme for expanding walking and cycling infrastructure.
A few steps forward
Within a year of the policy’s release, it has made such a mark that UNEP is now looking to work with government officials to upscale the policy beyond Nairobi and incorporate it into the Kenya Vision 2030, a national development policy including all of Kenya’s cities. In fact, Christine Ogut and Kimathi Njiru, engineers with the Nairobi City County Government, report that many NMT projects have been completed or are underway. Six km of pedestrian sidewalks have been built near Nairobi’s Central Business District, while another three km are under construction. In addition, 15 km of walkways are under construction along Chalbi drive in the Northwestern part of the city.
The NMT Policy outlined problems that make it hard for people to walk around, such as narrow or nonexistent sidewalks that are often filled with mud, water or debris, and analyzed the need for safe bicycle lanes traversing the city. Officials used this information to set goals for improvement, such as constructing 1,500 km of safe footpaths for pedestrians and 1,000 km of cycle lanes by 2020. The policy also proposed additional infrastructure like bicycle parking and street lighting to help pedestrians and bicyclists.
Buses for decongestion
The Nairobi City County Government supported the NMT Policy in the context of wider efforts to tackle traffic in the capital. Before the launch of the NMT policy, the NCCG commissioned the Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee, which analyzed the factors contributing to the traffic and proposed solutions in a final report. It found that Nairobi’s traffic roundabouts and road systems, built between the 1930s and 1960s when the population was below one million, were too archaic to handle the 87,000 vehicles that traveling the busiest corridors each day. Some of its proposals were included in the NMT policy, but it also laid out a broader agenda for the creation of a better organized public transportation system including dedicated bus lanes and railways.
Currently, Nairobi has no fully government-owned and operated public transportation system. Instead, privately owned 14-passenger vans and larger buses called “matatus” transport an estimated 37% of citizens. These matatus have no dedicated roadways and are often stuck in the same terrible congestion as private vehicles. Now, with the support of the World Bank and UNEP, city officials are looking to public transport to ease traffic congestion. The $300 million dollar Nairobi Metropolitan Services Improvement Project, funded by the World Bank, is set to provide commuter rail improvements and Bus Rapid Transit infrastructure in tandem with many other projects.
Other cities show the way
As these plans progress, Kenyan officials must learn from their neighbors, such as Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, who have implemented similar transportation projects. Ethiopia launched the first light rail system in sub-Saharan Africa in Addis Ababa in September 2015. The multi-million dollar project, which has two lines covering more than 32 km, was largely financed by China, a country that has funded large scale infrastructure projects in Kenya in the past. Kenya should consider requesting similar financing on expanding its own light rail system in the future. Hungary is the main financial donor for Nairobi’s current June 2016 plans for light rail, but China could be a partner in the future too. China has shown commitment to light rail, aggressively expanding its own rail networks and funding the construction of networks in Lagos and Kampala. In South Africa, the government of Johannesburg successfully implemented Africa’s first bus rapid transit system in 2009 after overcoming resistance from powerful taxi unions. Nairobi officials could learn from this success, as they are likely to face similar challenges from matatu drivers and matatu company owners that could cause their projects to fail.
Some road blocks
Twenty per cent of all funds that would have been dedicated to road construction are now being assigned to pedestrian, bicycle and other NMT infrastructure instead. It is historic because such infrastructure has never been funded before, but it is too little given that almost half of Nairobi’s citizens rely on walking and cycling to move around. Moreover, the majority of the funds remain to be disbursed. Only 18.2 % of this funding has actually been secured so far, according to Carly Koinange of UNEP. Government officials must provide more resources for the city to work towards a more balanced and equitable transportation system.
At the same time, government officials need to reconsider their priorities. Millions of dollars have been spent on highways in hopes of reducing congestion, even as growing evidence suggests that constructing more roads can lead to more congestion by encouraging people to get into their cars. But the solution is not as simple as spending less on highways and more on transit because research also suggests that better transit can prompt some people to get back into their cars because the roads are less congested. Instead, more intense efforts to transfer the true costs of driving to drivers will help reduce congestion. Building new sidewalks or shiny light rail lines must be accompanied by efforts like congestion pricing and higher parking costs. Additionally, stronger land-use planning and enforcement can prevent the sprawl and facilitate high density developments where shorter commutes make it easier for people to walk or ride bikes.
Even so, Nairobi is on the right path. The city has taken significant steps to improve non-motorized transport and government officials have already discussed more intense efforts to tackle the gridlock. Now, those officials need to follow through so the progress in NMT and alternative transportation can truly succeed.