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January 17, 2019

Nairobi traffic mess needs structural solutions

Nairobi is beginning to feel a little like Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!

I’m looking at options and two stand out. Never ever leave the immediate vicinity of my compound again, not unlike a pigeon who just sticks to one place, (Germans call this ‘ortstreu’: unusually, a very short compound word.

In English, I have only found a Latin derived word for it: philopatric - an animal or species tending to return to or remain near a particular site or area. How strange is it that German is more concise than English for a change?), or just take leave of this city.

I don’t really know about the middle ground anymore. Yesterday, I went off to a meeting on the other side of the highway (something I do try to avoid at all costs these days) and the traffic isn’t at the ex roundabout anymore.

But the number of cars hasn’t fallen, of course, so they all bunch up somewhere else. If you try to use the U-turn near Mvuli Road/School Lane, you’re in for a battle: crossing the two lanes on each side was a bit of a gamble before, but now it’s a right fight and there’s usually a new jam there that didn’t exist before.

And fighting your way over to that side of the highway is nothing compared to trying to get out of School Lane again. I don’t think that has really been taken into consideration. Yes, you can apparently clear the two-lane highway, but you shove a lot of that traffic into single-lane neighbourhoods.

And other things I wondered about: why is there still a traffic light from Rhapta Road going onto the ex roundabout? It seems to serve no discernable purpose as the traffic from downtown isn’t halted, nor does anyone care about pedestrians (pole for them – getting across the ex roundabout is even more suicidal now).

And what purpose do those bright lights strung across Waiyaki Way just after the ex roundabout serve? When it’s dark, I constantly worry that they blind me to the pedestrians who walk to and from the (illegally stopping) matatus and that I might injure or kill someone.

Now I’ve tried to ask such questions of Mr Kidero and his deputy before on Twitter, and got roundly ignored. It is, of course, entirely possible that after walking on ground (well done sir!), Mr Kidero is now attempting to walk on water, and is generally just too busy to deal with the two-way traffic of Twitter (he’s quite good at retweeting praise, though).

There is no doubt that Nairobi traffic is a massive problem that needs to be sorted out. But as with many other burning issues that really need to be addressed, I often get incredibly irritated by the knee-jerkiness of it.

Remember that two downtown roundabout blocks were lifted (temporarily) until the Southern bypass had been reopened. Had that not occurred to anyone that the timing here was lousy?

And the Nation reported: "Nairobi County government's executive for transport, Mohammed Abdullahi, said the redesign required additional lanes, which was impossible because there is no land. Therefore, Mr Abdullahi said, new designs must be made." Wait, what?? And this? "But Mr Abdullahi said that this would not take long."

Before the abolition of roundabouts, I found that the 50km/h speed limit, a standard practice pretty much around the globe, helped to make things a little saner ‑ at least on those days when people were worried about it being enforced. Similarly the traffic lights, when the police weren’t too creative, but just made sure that people stopped for a red light, it helped.

So in all this traffic moaning and whining, there’s as point: you are looking at a massive and complex problem. Same with, say, security.

They require structural solutions. They don’t require fiddling with things on the surface. Whether the removal of roundabout is, on balance, a solution is not clear to me yet. But unless you address Nairobian drivers’ inconsiderate, selfish and often homicidal driving, change will be limited.

Unless traffic police enforce traffic rules rather than see the streets as a giant income-generating opportunity in a wildly corrupt system, change will be limited. A city like Nairobi needs more forward thinking, especially with regard to public transport and alternative means of getting around. I’d love to cycle and walk more, but I really don’t much enjoy being mugged by guys on motorbikes.

You need to fix systems, and properly: security will not be fixed by recruiting 10,000 people whose recruitment was deeply flawed, by overriding the courts, and by reaffirming corrupt police officers’ corrupt recruitment practices. That won’t rid you of corruption.

This isn’t a new problem. Remember the introduction of the CDF. Proponents say that it gives local communities more influence in spending decisions.

Effectively, through, it merely avoided fixing the existing structures, and gave MPs (who are the legislative, not the executive) a slush fund to play with.

I know that complex, big problems require creativity and pragmatism – but half-baked efforts that eye publicity and ignore the system will just create more layers of complications. And jams on School Lane.

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