Last week, what is hailed as the first tram system in sub-Saharan Africa was opened in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The 34km light rail has two main lines.
A North-South Blue Line which runs for 16.9km and a 17.4km Green Line that runs east to west. The two lines are expected to run on a fleet of 41 trams and carry 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction at a speed of 70km per hour along 39 stations.
Addis Ababa has a similar population to Nairobi at 3.1 million, while Nairobi is estimated at 3.5 million. And just like their contemporaries in most parts of Africa, traffic is a daily crisis for its residents.
Thankfully with the tram system, the residents of Addis can sigh with relieve. Their daily commute is expected to drastically change for the better, at virtually no additional cost with the cost of a trip going for about Sh30.
Compare this with the Sh20 minimum fare charged by matatus and Sh100 charged from Langata to Central Business District, a 10km commute.
This is unbelievably cheap, and is affordable even to the low income group, putting to rest the notion that such transport will be unaffordable and can only be targeted as a substitute to private transport users.
Infact, while inaugurating the system the Minister for Transport made it clear it was not driven by commercial considerations but the main purpose was to ease daily commute for the residents of Addis.
With the new developments taking place in Addis following closely the modernisation of its airport, the ministers’ reference to Addis as the capital of Africa may just come true. This is the city and the country to watch.
Of course the benefits accruing from such a transport system are immense. Worker productivity will increase and the economy will be stimulated as more hours are available for work.
Besides, traffic jams are a major source of stress, and less traffic leads to healthier workers and less medical costs.
The project was constructed in the last three years by China Railway Engineering at a cost of $475 million, about Sh47.5 billion with financing from the Export-Import Bank of China to cover 85 per cent of the cost.
Besides the core deliverables of the project it included a technology transfer component with Ethiopian experts assembling the fleet alongside the Chinese experts and training of Ethiopian drivers and maintenance staff.
According to a report by the Nairobi County Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee, Nairobi city congestion costs the economy a staggering Sh37 billion annually.
This means a project similar to the one in Addis would have a payback period of less than one and a half years! However, considering one project is unlikely to deliver the desired transportation efficiency, such a system can be replicated more than five times to give us a payback period of 20-30 years, which is reasonable for a mass transport system.
Nairobi is rapidly urbanising with the population growing from about 350,000 in 1963 at independence to the estimated 3.5 million today and growing. It is estimated this may reach five million in the next ten years.
Vehicles that need to use the road network have more than doubled in the past five years. Traffic congestion is becoming worse month by month.
Almost 85 per cent of the city relies mainly on a fleet of about 20,000 privately owned matatus that have no regard for traffic rules, and more significantly also shape the road usage culture.
So rampant is the disregard for traffic rules that traffic police on the patrol often ignore most offenses such as stopping outside designated areas. Besides, police cannot be everywhere.
Infrastructure growth and traffic management has hardly matched the growth of the city, and although the County is playing catch-up with the opening up of city by-passes, it is not happening fast enough.
It is estimated that the current infrastructure is only enough to serve a third of the current population.
Granted, recent developments including the construction of the Thika superhighway and the road bypasses have eased what could have been a worse situation.
However, it is clear that decongestion projects can no longer be handled sequentially. Multiple approaches and concurrent decongestion projects will be required to not only catch up with a backlog of past neglect, but also to keep in tandem with increasing population.
A tram system modeled on the Addis’s system and could complement the main Nairobi feeder roads of Thika road, Jogoo road and Mombasa road.
The opportunity for the first County government to make a difference in Nairobi no doubts involves prioritizing the decongestion of the city. To quote one Enrique Penalso;
“An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation”