How to end the Nairobi traffic nightmare

Lisa Kleypas, in her novel “Love in the Afternoon” says “You are your own worst enemy. If you can learn to stop expecting impossible perfection in yourself and others, you may find the happiness that has always eluded you.”

We seem to be truly our own enemies in Nairobi when we allowed new traffic regulations in the hope of perfecting safety. Unfortunately, we are causing gridlocks in virtually all corners of the city.

Speed is a function of throughput. And as such, if there is a chance that some vehicles can move faster, then let us allow it until such a time we are through with the bypasses that are being built.

Recent changes to limit speed at 50 kilometres per hour are not helping the situation. What is really happening especially in the past one week is more road rage incidents resulting from gridlocks than safety that the speed limit was intended for.

It makes no sense taking one hour driving the three kilometre stretch between Westlands and the central business district.


The traffic situation in Nairobi has reached unbearable proportions that we need a stakeholders’ conference to chart out short, medium and long term strategies to deal with the situation as an emergency.

Although the transport sector is poorly co-ordinated and regulated, there are some short term solutions that can build a temporal public transportation system.

These include route restructuring, creating a rapid transport system (RTS) and increasing its frequency. This can be done within a five kilometre radius, where we should create North, South, East and West termini for public service vehicle (PSV) passengers to terminate their journey use the RTS into and out of the city using an exclusive right of way.

RTS will initially consist of large buses carrying at least 100 passengers and expand later with construction of either a monorail or a city subway (need to leverage on excess labour to build the system).

Through the e-payment system, commuters will only need to pay once and the fare is distributed to owners of the vehicles through a back-end system.

Once the optimal RTS frequency is attained, all PSVs can be banned from entering the city. As an incentive, the matatus saccos that own the PSVs can be allowed to invest in the RTS.

The eventual outcome is to minimise the number of transport companies to at least two that can be effectively regulated.

The 2012 promise by the Transport ministry to phase out 14-seater matatus and replace them with larger buses as a strategy to reduce the number of vehicles coming into the city should form the basis of the medium-term strategy.

It should focus on redesigning existing infrastructure such as turning some roads in the city into one-way streets to improve the flow of traffic.

Some new infrastructure may have to be built to enable the smooth flow of pedestrians and vehicles. Within the medium-term strategies, we should see major roads like Kenyatta Avenue converted to allow vehicular traffic to flow above.

In the long run we should work towards an urban light rail system that links passengers to termini suggested above and others that would support rural bus systems. It may also be necessary to consider developing an underground rail network.

There is no better time to develop these labour-intensive projects than now when we have plenty of idle labour. From the airport through to Limuru, we should put up a high speed, overpass superhighway with interchanges at Haile Selassie, Kenyatta and Westlands while at the same time redirecting heavy traffic to the Northern and Southern bypasses.

These projects can be done through public-private partnership where the investor will recover their investment over 20 years.

Considering the frustrations that we are going through at the moment, majority of drivers would prefer to pay extra to get to their destinations on time.

Other long term interventions include the redistribution of social services throughout the city. The county government should for example give incentives to top schools to set up new branches in all parts of Nairobi to stop parents from driving across town to get their children to good schools.

Above all, the country government should stay ahead of city residents by planning roads and other infrastructure before settlement. The Nairobi Master Plan should be openly available to help people decide their future plans.

As former UK prime minister Winston Churchill once said: “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”

The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.