Almost everyone agrees that there is an urgent need to decongest Nairobi but, apparently, nobody knows for sure how to go about it. With a population approaching five million and another million or two pouring into the city streets every day from its satellite towns, the capital city needs urgent attention. It may not be the most congested in the world, but anyone who has tried to drive to and from the CBD during peak hours will agree that unless something is done, one day it will grind to a halt. Yet for some reason, every intervention that has so far been tried has failed.
This could be for two important reasons. First, apparently, nobody foresaw the rapid urbanisation that has been the inevitable result of a population explosion in the past three decades, brought on by the centralisation of government services and concentration of employment opportunities in this metropolis. As a result, due to lack of planning, any attempt to correct such oversights now may be so horrendously expensive as to be impossible.
Urban planners will readily attest to this predicament; they will agree that the lack of enabling infrastructure is the greatest hindrance to any such endeavour, however inspired. If someone can, for instance, point out where tramways, subways and even simple bicycle lanes can be built in Nairobi, he or she ought to win the Nobel Prize for innovation. The greatest casualty is ease of mobility, both vehicular and pedestrian. Try walking on the pavements without bumping into your fellow sufferers in the morning, during the lunch hour and in the evening and you will see how it works out.
I have a sneaking sympathy for those folk charged with making Nairobi move with a semblance of comfort. They have been reduced to flapping around like headless chickens, making no progress whatsoever in any of their initiatives.
This is why its governor will wake up one morning and ban matatus from the central business district only to rescind the ban the following day. It is also why the Transport minister would announce the start of a twice-a-week car-free pilot project and then postpone it almost immediately after vociferous opposition.
The fact is, trying to enforce a two-day car-free Nairobi would have been a monumental blunder. I am willing to bet that if the minister had tried to enforce that car-free policy without offering alternatives for transporting people to the city, the effect would have been dire.
Said Ainabkoi MP William Chepkut in a tweet: “Car free days are effected in cities that have subway/ metro lines/rail lines, bike lanes and bike parks, mass bus transport systems and some have waterways serving the CBD … now look for these transport systems serving Nairobi CBD & tell me this is not a case of mad cow disease.”
Except for the last totally crude sentiment, many people would agree with this assessment. Before anyone can think of decongesting the city by banning private cars from some streets, it should have occurred to them that everyone would try to jostle for parking space on the roads left unsecured. Utter pandemonium would be the inevitable result.
Now, at this point, I feel I should explain my interest in the whole affair: Precious little. It’s been some years since I did a daily commute to the city centre, and if I have to drive in that direction, I carefully skirt it. However, as long as the hapless commuters are affected, I too feel the pain, for I believe this whole conundrum can be sorted out.
During my first visit to Beijing, China, 20 years ago, its streets were so congested that the official escorts in the van that transported our party of journalists from Africa had to use a bullhorn to clear the way. By my second trip 10 years later, this was not necessary. Not only had the city authorities found ingenious ways of easing the jams, even the smog that had covered Beijing like a blanket had cleared due to the fewer number of vehicles allowed in, and the increasing number of bicycles, scooters and mopeds in use. How they did it is immaterial right now. The important thing is that a city that hosts at least 21 million souls is no longer gasping for breath due to traffic jams and pollution.
Reducing congestion in Nairobi and other cities is possible, and at the moment, the Bus Rapid Transit model seems to be the only one possible in our circumstances. However, before it is implemented, it requires a great deal of thought, time and resources. It is not clear what informed the decision to import buses from South Africa long before the infrastructure was in place.
It looks as if it was decided to procure the buses first, then paint dedicated lanes for them, and only then decide where their stations would be built. This seems to be a backassward way of doing things, but then the clever chaps at the ministry must have had good reasons that the rest of us can’t comprehend.