Scholastica Omoga walks to work daily from her Kibera slum house to Westlands shopping centre, taking one hour to cover about 10 kilometres.
Sections of the distance are narrow and often busy with cars, buses, vans, handcart pushers, cyclists, and the pedestrians like Ms Omoga. It is often a delicate balancing act because the sidewalks are not adequate.
Ms Omoga says she always crosses her fingers and prays not to be hit by the vehicles moving at high speed, and, for the matatus, stopping at the wrong points to pick up and drop passengers.
Other Kenyans staying in busy cities like Nairobi go through a similar scenario of competing for road space, especially during the peak hours when the bulk of the people report to or return from work.
This contest between motorists and other road users usually culminate in road accidents that kill or seriously injure someone every six seconds, says Unep. This makes a yearly toll of about 1.2 million fatalities mostly in developing nations, adds the agency.
In Kenya, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that road crashes kill between 3,000 and 13,000 people every year.
Road traffic injury represents about 45 to 60 per cent of all admissions in Kenya’s surgical wards, further straining the country’s already overstretched health system.
A 2003 study indicated that road traffic injuries cost Kenya between Sh5 billion and Sh10 billion annually, which figures do not take care of costs associated with lost productivity arising from deaths and disability.
However, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) is now promoting a global programme dubbed ‘Share the Road’ to address some of these challenges on the road.
The agency is advocating for a road construction suitable for motorised transport and walking, cycling and skating.
“Our message is simple: build roads with adequate walking and cycling facilities to save lives and propel development,” says Rob de Jong, the head of transport unit at Unep’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. Mr Michael Njonge, the traffic manager at the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) says new design for roads is long overdue.
He says Kenyan roads lack facilities to accommodate the rising number of people coming into the urban centres. About 30 per cent of Kenyans live in urban centres now, but this is expected to double by the year 2030.
Walking and cycling constitute more than 50 per cent of journeys made in urban cities like Nairobi, he said. “It’s no longer a question of whether we can afford it or not. We just have to build roads with adequate space for vehicles and other modes of transport,” he says.
Wilson Tikwa, the chief road safety officer at Kura says “it’s clear that at any point in our cities, we have more people on foot than in cars.”
It doesn’t make sense, Mr Tikwa said, to implement a multi-billion shilling road project for few motorists but fail to construct anything for thousands of other road users.”
And it does not cost much, says Unep’s Jong. By setting aside only less than five per cent of funds allocated to road construction, the government can build people-friendly roads.
He says such designs help to decongest and reduce road accidents.
However, the Unep official said Kenya faces a more complex problem than redesign of roads: The high population growth and the strong appetite for cars, meaning the number of its vehicles doubles every six years. “So any new roads constructed will be quickly filled up. So the country needs to begin embracing other modes of transport."
The Kenya Revenue Authority figures show that there are more than two million registered vehicles in the country. About 60 per cent of those are in Nairobi.
“In this regard, Kura in 2011 decided to include facilities for both motorised and non-motorised transport modes in all urban roads it constructs or rehabilitates,” says Mr Njonge.
The recently opened 8.4 kilometres Western Ring Road (starting from Westlands past Kilileshwa to Yaya) were the first roads in Kenya to be constructed using the ‘Share the Road’ model.
Mr Tikwa notes that they represent the face of new urban roads and cities. “And they offer a lasting solution to the menace caused by congested roads,” he says.
Apart from being dual-carriage ways, the Western Ring Roads have ample space for pedestrians and cyclists. The pedestrian paths are distinct from motorists’ lanes, built using drain trenches and stone bollards as barriers.
“This prevents matatus from encroaching on our lanes and hitting us as they previously did during traffic jams,” says Lucy Otieno who walks from Kibera to Kilimani using that route.
She adds: “The very many zebra crossing points and ramps make it easier for those on foot and wheelchairs to cross roads here.”
For bicycle lovers, cycling lanes and bicycle crossing points on the Western Ring Roads have made travel pleasurable.
“Nowadays I am able to reach my clients fast and safely as I don’t have to compete for road space with speeding and careless drivers that can kill me,” Lucas Liasa, a newspaper distributor in Nairobi told the Business Daily.
The new designs have encouraged more people to walk and use bicycles, which Mr Tikwa says promotes healthy living by keeping lifestyle diseases associated with sedentary conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems at bay.
“With fewer cars on roads, there will be less air pollution which is also good for health,” notes Mr Jong.
Emissions from motor vehicles, Unicef estimates, are responsible for up to 90 per cent of urban air pollution worldwide. It causes more than a million premature deaths each year through diseases such as pneumonia, lung cancer and pulmonary obstructive disease.
Mr Tikwa says that since majority of Kenyans do not own cars, people-friendly roads would encourage them to walk more thus saving on transport costs.
“I used to spend about Sh3,000 monthly on matatus from Kibera to Westlands and back. But now I use no money as I walk to work,” says Ms Otieno.
Even people owning cars, adds Mr Njonge, can immensely cut on parking fees and petrol costs if they embrace cycling or walking. The savings can be invested, he said.
The 2013 Kenya Economic Survey notes that Kenya imported petroleum products worth Sh326 billion, a budget that can be reduced through more cycling and walking.
Mr Njonge adds that the government would also save on road repair when fewer vehicles are on the roads.
Unlike conventional single roundabouts which slowdown vehicles, the Western Ring Roads have twin roundabouts — a first in Kenya — aimed at preventing traffic build-up at junctions.
Similarly, the roads have flat-top speed bumps that are easy to navigate.
Such facilities, notes Mr Tikwa, will greatly help to minimise congestion and traffic jams which consume a lot of fuel and wastes valuable time for passengers who would otherwise be working elsewhere.
Kura has been incorporating people-friendly facilities as it upgrades roads to meet the standards of the new model. The UN Avenue is one where pedestrian paths and cycling lanes were incorporated following incidents of children killed or injured while crossing the road.
The construction of the 13km Outering Road and rehabilitation of Ngong Road (4.7km) will follow suit at a cost of Sh10 billion and Sh3.7 billion respectively.
All modes of transport, says Mr Jong, be they motorised or non-motorised have a role and none should be seen as superior.
“So motorists should not knock down cyclists or pedestrians since they are also important,” says Jong.
“It’s okay to walk or ride a bicycle. We don’t really have to buy cars as proof of success in life,” says Mr Njonge, adding enforcement of traffic rules should be enhanced.
“Those found speeding, knocking down bollards or refusing to give way to pedestrians at zebra crossings should be punished. According to Mr Tikwa, road users should be sensitised on the significance of facilities set aside for them.