If you have been on the Mombasa-Nairobi Highway, chances are that you have experienced traffic snarl-ups, some taking more than 24 hours. Yet this road is the lifeline to Kenya’s hinterland and neighbouring landlocked countries. The news about the expansion of this important gateway came as a relief to many importers and exporters of goods who have been experiencing heavy losses from frequent disruptions on the link.
The idea of using the Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) model under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiative, if successful, will open a new chapter in the country’s economic development journey.
For BOT to work, several socio-economic factors must be taken into consideration during design and development of the expressway.
Online dictionary Thesaurus.com defines an expressway as “a highway especially planned for high-speed traffic, usually having few if any intersections, limited points of access or exit, and a divider between lanes for traffic moving in opposite directions.”
With this definition, let me elaborate common behavioural practices that often change the intended purpose of development. These include opportunistic practices, the impunity of matatu operators and the arbitrariness of police checkpoints that in many cases have been not only the cause of accidents, but also the source of unnecessary delays.
Unless we deal with these retrogressive practices, no other investor will find it worthwhile to risk investing in projects that they have no control of in attaining their intended goal.
Here are a few examples. Thika highway was intended to be a high-speed link between Thika and Nairobi but it has been turned into a commuters’ nightmare and business jungle simply because there are no zoning regulations.
Real estate developers saw it as an opportunity to put up housing and other commercial structures (gas stations, bars, malls) along the way. As a result, the number of accidents increased along the way leading to building of speed bumps that slow down the traffic.
It is perhaps the only expressway with bumps and police set up roadblocks anywhere. Street vendors saw an opportunity in speed bumps and what was meant to be a high-speed link is now a go-slow, chaotic mess of infrastructure.
In one incident, a police officer stopped a bus and as it came to a screeching halt, the truck behind it rammed into it, killing the officer in the process. In several others incidents, motorists have driven over haphazardly placed roadblocks on highways. More often than not, vehicles that break down on highways are left there for days only to be removed after accidents have occurred.
Although the highway has service roads that can be used for other activities like bus stops, matatus pick and drop passengers right on the highway with impunity and cause traffic snarl ups along the highway.
At some stops like Ngara area, it is not uncommon to find a matatu driving in the wrong direction. At Githurai, matatus merge into the highway using the exit. Boda Boda operators also add to the pain of driving on these highways as they break all manner of traffic rules.
To enable the investors recoup their investment, there must be rules of the game.
These rules should, in my view, include: the government zoning the entire highway designating centres of commercial activity that must be off the expressway; additional investment on sensor technologies to remove police from the roads and have them monitoring traffic from remote sites; building of service roads for bus stops to avoid the mess we are experiencing on Thika road; if possible, the design across the Tsavo National Park to incorporate wildlife; and, pass the law that any vehicle stalling on the highway is towed away at the owner’s cost within the shortest time possible.
It is in our interest to enable the investor realise their returns as fast as possible as a strategy to attract more investment for other critical projects under a similar model.
As such, we must change our behavioural practices on the highways. This must include enabling our micro and small enterprises to succeed in organised commercial centres that minimise their risk on highways.