Ideas & Debate

Smart solutions can unlock Nairobi traffic

Traffic congestion
Traffic congestion along University Way in Nairobi on Monday, December 03, 2018. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Many years of missed opportunities to develop urban rapid mass transportation systems for Nairobi has caught us in a traffic emergency that can only be eliminated through hard and practical choices, not through uncoordinated quick fixes. The problem is not confined to Nairobi as other towns of Kenya are going through the same experience.

The number of vehicles in Kenya is rising much faster than we are able to provide capacity to accommodate the vehicular upsurge. It has to be a two-pronged solution – developing infrastructure and systems to cope with increasing vehicle population while simultaneously working on policies, regulations and programmes to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads.

It should however be acknowledged that the government has continued to undertake major road infrastructure expansion and modifications to remove bottlenecks that throttle traffic flows in and around the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. This programme should continue to be prioritised, resourced, and further expanded to the other towns .

Sustainably controlling the number of vehicles on our roads is the defining challenge to be addressed. Runaway car ownership growth is mainly due to introduction in the market of cheaper car models, and the emergence of flexible vehicle credit financing options.

It should also be acknowledged that car ownership in Kenya is a very aspirational aspect of Kenyans lives, especially as personal disposable incomes increase. It is a “ problem” that reflects the country’s wider economic success.


Fiscal penalties can be used to limit car population only to a limited extent, since these result in unintended consequence on the economy in general. To a Kenyan population with a high appetite for car ownership, fiscal penalties have produced minimal traffic improvements. The recent petroleum VAT imposition has not significantly reduced the number of miles driven.

The about to be launched Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) is meant to provide significant solutions to the city’s traffic predicament. This programme should be given every opportunity and support to succeed.

Like any belated fix to an already messy traffic system, there will be as many challenges in BRT implementation as there are opportunities. Indeed we are already seeing technical and operational design faults around the programme, and this is why the BRT implementing agents should be open to third party positive suggestions and opinions.

The ultimate success factor for BRT is when thousands of Nairobi motorists willingly decide to leave their cars at home and embark on BRT, because of guaranteed convenience, comfort, and adherence to time schedules. I am sure the BRT will be achieved because it has successfully happened in many cities across the world. When the current “matatu” enterprises finally transform themselves into various shades of BRT, then we shall know that the passenger traffic excellence has been achieved .

In respect of Nairobi, the rail commuter trains can significantly reduce the commuter strain if this mode of transport is similarly prioritised as an integral part of the rapid city transport to supplement the BRT. Commuter trains should be sufficiently modernised for comfort and convenience, trip frequencies increased, and safety assurance increased.

Turning to the serious problem of the management of traffic at intersections and roundabouts, suitable technology I am sure is available for effective traffic control.

This should be sought and applied. Additionally, basic modifications like slip-ways and flyovers should be implemented at critical intersections to reduce time-wasting traffic holdups.

Finally there are many who are willing to walk to their destinations, and for these we should increase and improve paved walkways to make them convenient and safe.

Voluntary walking is healthy, economical, and it reduces pressure on city traffic systems. Let us make it easy for more commuters to choose to walk.

The suggestion last week to open up a number of city streets for markets was as much comical as it was un-implementable. We should not compound the CBD traffic predicament with side issues.

Traffic holdups anywhere in Kenya are an expensive cost to the economy. They are wasting valuable foreign exchange on imported oil while reducing available productive hours.