• A National Transport and Safety Authority report showed that by late last September, 1,269 pedestrians had lost their lives on the roads in 2022.
• A recent article suggested that about 47 per cent of people in Nairobi walk to work. This is far higher than in most other African cities.
To walk around the roads of Nairobi is to get a distinct impression that one is not really intended to be there.
There are of course roads that are very inhospitable to motor vehicles, too, but far more that cater reasonably well for the motor vehicle, but where walkers, and cyclists, risk life and limb.
We know, too, that pedestrians are the largest single group of victims of road accidents. A National Transport and Safety Authority report showed that by late last September, 1,269 pedestrians had lost their lives on the roads in 2022.
A WALKING NATION
Astonishing numbers of people walk as their usual means of moving from one place to another. A recent article suggested that about 47 per cent of people in Nairobi walk to work. This is far higher than in most other African cities.
There are roads in Nairobi with sidewalks of some sort. But all too often these are eaten away by various sorts of development. The road may be repaired but the sidewalk not. They may have once been paved but the paving stones are broken, or disappeared. Mud is your option in the rainy season. Holes may appear – and not disappear. Heaps of stones are left from road repairs. Electric cables hang broken and trail across the path –“are they live wires?” one wonders, steering clear by stepping into the road. No-one trims the vegetation that grows over the paths.
Major roads are driven through residential areas, dividing communities. We know the Thika Highway seems to have been conceived without any plan for pedestrian bridges. And now there are a few, many people will find it very time consuming to use them and prefer to run the risk of running across the road.
Motorists have complained that the Expressway is intended for the elite, for most feel they cannot afford the tolls. But the Expressway has made life for the motorists underneath more difficult with heaps of earth and blocking of drainage. But what about the poor pedestrian?
When he or she wants to cross the road (under the Expressway) or walk along under it or parallel to it into town there is little indication the plight of the pedestrian — or even their existence — was taken into account.
There have been some signs of improvement. A few new roads include footpaths. A few roads within the city have acquired rather better footpaths.
We are quite good at making policies and guidelines. Last December, the Ministry of Roads and Transport published a “Street Design Manual for Urban Areas in Kenya”.
This sets out a hierarchy of preference: least desirable are the private motorised forms, and the most desirable walking followed by other non-motorised forms – the opposite way from what it feels like on the whole. As the Cabinet Secretary said in his foreword, “Once walkable and cyclable places have been redesigned to prioritise personal motor vehicles”.
A real change does require a radical alteration in outlook. Interestingly, the 1948 Master Plan for Nairobi said that low paid workers should not live more than 2 miles (about 3km) from their place of work. Yet over the decades, policies have repeatedly led to the eviction of people from their homes in the city, driving people further away from their work.
In other words, making walking more necessary for more people – especially, of course, when coupled with poverty. Clearly the concept of the “right to the city” has had little resonance with our city planners. As a study in 2020, Towards a Just City in Kenya, said, “On city streets, various road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, are invariably excluded.”
It was particularly interesting to see that the Manual recognises the difficulties with footbridges. They add to the walking time, they are expensive, they are often inaccessible to certain sections of the community, they are hazardous, because they are separate from people generally, exposing people to robbery and sexual assault, (and they often take up walking space at ground level). There is a tendency to blame the pedestrian for not using them – but modern planning ideas would at least to some extent exonerate the pedestrian. Crossing should be at the same level as the road not over a bridge, or by a tunnel.
A MATTER OF RIGHTS
Pedestrians are not adequately respected. Of course the elite does not walk (they go to gyms to walk on machines). The Manual makes my next point: that this is a matter of rights.
It says, “The Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of movement under Article 39(1) and the right to a clean and healthy environment under Article 42.”
It goes on to comment, in one of the particularly neglected provisions in the Bill of Rights, “ All public offices are mandated to respond to the needs of vulnerable members of the society, including women, aged, children, persons with disabilities, and minority/marginalised communities” (Article 21(3)).
Freedom of movement we tend to think of as about devolution (which should not curtail people’s freedom) and rather broad and politically important concepts. But the right belongs to everyone, and it should protect movement even for a few kilometres, and for mundane purposes like getting to work, and by whatever means.
The state is required by the Constitution to respect, protect, promote and fulfil rights. In this context this would mean respecting – not positively obstructing movement; protecting – stopping other people obstructing or making movement hazardous; promoting – educating and encouraging; and fulfilling – actually taking positive steps to make possible.
And the standard to be achieved would be making walking not just possible, but safe, even pleasurable. Holes, stones, dangerous wires and puddles should be removed. Convenient routes should be envisioned and enhanced.
In some parts of the world, the concept of freedom of movement of pedestrians has been spelled out in far more detail. In 1998, the European Parliament passed the Charter of Pedestrians’ Rights. It includes “The pedestrian has the right to live in urban or village centres tailored to the needs of human beings and not to the needs of the motor car and to have amenities within walking or cycling distance.”
It includes recognition of the needs of specific sections of society like children and persons with disabilities. And it specifies certain ways of protecting and encouraging pedestrians.
In some countries, laws to control pedestrians have added to their problems – not I think a problem here. Some have, however, suggested criminalising jaywalking (crossing roads at undesignated spots), and, remarkably, in 2014 the police threatened to charge people who jaywalked with attempted suicide.
Blaming the victim, you might think. But in the United States several states have relaxed laws on jaywalking and recognised the rights of pedestrians to “to fair and equitable use of public roadways”.
The Constitution also has the national value of “inclusiveness”, which is clearly violated by the way pedestrians are treated.
ENCOURAGE NON-MOTORISED TRANSPORT
Walking and cycling are good for health and good for the environment including the climate. We should not be merely tolerating them, but positively encouraging them. Instead of that we, like many other countries, tend to idolise the motor car.
Yet Nairobi would be a good city for walking and cycling if the facilities were right. The 1948 Master Plan said, “The pedestrian and the cyclist should be given the facilities which are freely conceded to the motorist”.
I have hardly touched on cycling. Cyclists are far fewer, but they are equally ignored by planners, and by implementers. I recently met a “leafy suburb” resident who had planned to cycle to work but gave up after being twice knocked by matatus. And as for wheelchairs – forget it!
As it is, our situation is rather like the scene from Wole Soyinka’s play, The Trials of Brother Jero: “If we dey walka today, give us our own bicycle tomorrow...Those who have bicycle today, they will ride their own car tomorrow...Give them big car tomorrow. Give them big car tomorrow, give them big car tomorrow.”