SH50BN EXPRESSWAY

Urban mobility must be a public service, not privilege

Cars are a symptom of our incapacity to plan, build and manage cities.

In Summary

• Sh50bn expressway is an expensive way to go about alleviating traffic congestion.

• We need an integrated public transit system for Nairobi.

Heavy traffic jam on Uhuru Highway in Nairobi
NIGHTMARE: Heavy traffic jam on Uhuru Highway in Nairobi
Image: /FILE

Cities are the enduring testimony of our civilisation’s transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian, more sedentary societies.                                   

Primordial urbanisation or the Neolithic Demographic Transition as it is commonly known, provided the path for the early flourishing of human societies; systems of knowledge, trade, art and music, division of labour and yes, political structures and centralised administration.

Today 55 per cent of the global population lives in urban areas. It is projected that about 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The pace of urbanisation has been fastest in the developing world, especially Africa, which is by far the least urbanised land mass on the planet. Today, an estimated 40 per cent of Africans live in urban areas, up from 28 per cent in the 1980s.

The rate of urbanisation in Africa is unprecedented. African cities are bursting at the seams. Housing is stretched, water and sanitation systems are strained to a point of complete dysfunction. Transportation systems in cities like Accra, Kampala, Nairobi and Lagos are chocked. Commuting is gruesome

A World Bank report released in 2017 characterized African cities as; crowded, fragmented and expensive to live in, invest in or to run a business in. The congestion and the fragmentation make it difficult to leverage the benefits of urban concentration. So in essence, according to the World Bank, African cities are in a low-development trap.

The reasons for the incessant traffic congestion between JKIA and Westlands, and indeed across the city are known. They include inadequate infrastructure for matatus (bus stop), pedestrians (safe footbridges) and the legion of roundabouts on Uhuru Highway.

In the absence of an efficient transit system, public or private, the majority of African cities have evolved to be utterly dependable on the private car. The accelerated accumulation of private cars, buoyed by falling cost of purchase and a rising middle and upper-middle classes, has caused a veritable surge of the number of cars for cities and towns that lack the roads, parking and capacity to manage automobile traffic.

In most cities gridlock is insane. But cars are not the villain. Cars are much less the cause than a symptom of our incapacity to plan, build and manage cities. The needs of cars are easily comprehensible and solvable. Much more easily than the complex needs of people in cities.

The distance between the suburb of Westlands and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is just 19km and should take about 26 minutes by car. The commuting time between 9am and 8pm is anywhere between one and three hours; excruciating.

The government’s response is to build an expressway. This will be funded through a Public-Private Partnership, which will see China Road and Bridge Corporation invest over Sh50 billion and recover this from road users. What an expensive way to go about alleviating traffic congestion.

The reasons for the incessant traffic congestion between JKIA and Westlands, and indeed across the city are known. They include inadequate infrastructure for matatus (bus stop), pedestrians (safe footbridges) and the legion of roundabouts on Uhuru Highway.

We need an integrated public transit system for Nairobi. We must think of mobility as a public service not a privilege of the well-to-do.