Why traffic costs Kenya Sh2bn a year

Traffic jam in Nairobi city road which costs the country Sh2 billion every year. PHOTO | CHRIS OJOW | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • According to the government, the time wasted in traffic jams represents a cost of $578,000 (Sh58.4 million) a day in lost productivity.
  • “An average Nairobi resident has to wake up earlier than 4am, not to study but to beat the heavy traffic that characterises the city roads from 5am”.
  • More than 12 million people are expected to live in urban areas next year, with about a third of these living in Nairobi.

On the face of it, traffic is one of the less interesting things you could choose to write a column about. It is not far off talking about the weather and what you did on your holidays.

Regular readers might be wondering why I am not analysing rising ethnic tensions or the passing of the former First Lady Lucy Kibaki.

But traffic is important, as those who were recently stuck on Mombasa road for 12 hours after a truck plunged into a ditch can testify.

According to the government, the time wasted in traffic jams represents a cost of $578,000 (Sh58.4 million) a day in lost productivity. That’s more than $210 million (Sh2.1billion) a year. Which is the equivalent of an Anglo Leasing scandal every three years.

When you have recovered from falling off your chair, it will only take a minute or two of reflection to realise that in reality the cost is far higher than this because we need to factor in wasted fuel and the negative environmental impact of widespread congestion on the environment – not to mention the stress levels of drivers. Which raises an interesting question: why hasn’t more been done to fix the problem?

Anyone who has spent time in Nairobi knows that it is one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities on earth. Love it or hate it, the city pulses with an energy that always reminds me of the great urban conglomerations of our time: Lagos, London, New York. You used to be able to do more in a day in Nairobi than you could do in a week in some other places.

I say “used to”, because this is no longer the case. If you are lucky, you might get to two engagements in the day. But only someone very brave or foolhardy would book in back-to-back engagements unless they were right next to each other.

Of course, if you know the city’s rhythms you can make sure that you avoid the worst of the traffic, leaving early and coming back late. But this is getting harder and harder because traffic has started to envelop the day.

RUSH MORNING

It used to be the case that Nairobi had a rush hour. Now it has a rush morning and a rush afternoon. As Senator Mike Sonko recently said, “An average Nairobi resident has to wake up earlier than 4am, not to study but to beat the heavy traffic that characterises the city roads from 5am”.

A couple of years ago I was travelling back to Nairobi with a friend and colleague, Gregory Deacon. As the sun went down we hit an impenetrable traffic jam, which seemed to fill not just the main roads but the side streets and short cuts as well.

Determined to get us back in good time, Greg snaked through the city, using his knowledge of downtown to circumvent the worst of the traffic and move us forwards at any opportunity. As a passenger, it felt a bit like being in the slowest Formula 1 race of all time.

The drive was tiring work, as we often had to take one step backwards in order to take two forwards. As Nairobians know only too well, some days moving sideways is an achievement. When we arrived at our destination in time for a late dinner Greg was rightly triumphant. But he was also exhausted, having undergone the automobile equivalent of the Nairobi marathon.

Many others don’t have Greg’s determination or stamina.

The last time I was in Nairobi, a number of meetings got cancelled because the traffic was so bad that the people coming to meet me abandoned their quest and returned home. It is the number of working hours wasted sitting in traffic and failing to get to meetings that results in the productivity loss that costs the country an equivalent of Sh58 million a day.

GROWING MIDDLE CLASS

The reasons that traffic has got so bad are fairly obvious. Kenya’s urban population is increasing by around 4.3 per cent a year. More than 12 million people are expected to live in urban areas next year, with about a third of these living in Nairobi.

The challenge of a growing population has been compounded by the growing middle class and thus the number of people that can afford a car. As a result of these two trends, the number of vehicles in Nairobi has increased dramatically. According to a speech by Governor Evans Kidero, the number of cars, buses, trucks and lorries on the roads doubled between 2012 and 2014 and now stands at more than 700,000.

The problem is that there has been no corresponding improvement in the road system. As then county executive Evans Ondieki put it in an interview with Bloomberg in 2014, “For the past 30 years nothing happened for infrastructure”. Experts suggest that the current road capacity in Nairobi is enough to comfortably support a population of about 1 million – one third of the capital’s current size.

According to the United Nations, only 11 per cent of land is used for roads compared to a global yardstick of about 30 per cent. It is easy to see why the city grounds to a halt.

Of course, the roads themselves are only one part of the problem. There is also a lack of pavement, which means that it is unnecessarily dangerous – and sometimes impossible – to walk. Combined with poor roads and dangerous driving, this helps to explain why the World Health Organisation estimates that road accidents lead to the death of about 13,000 Kenyans annually. That’s about 30 times the number of people that were killed in terrorist attacks in 2015, and six times more than the number of homicides.

The most obvious solution, especially given the limited land given over to roads, is to construct more and wider roads. In January, the Kenya Urban Roads Authority announced that it had awarded the contract for the construction of two new projects: the Waiyaki-Red Hill link road and the Ngong Road-Lang’ata Link.

These projects are designed to ease congestion on Lang’ata road and nearby areas. In February, further plans were announced to expand Karen-Bomas and Karen-Kikuyu roads. The Eastern Bypass road that will connect Thika Road to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is also nearing completion.

But road building is not as straightforward as it sounds. Although new roads will resolve a number of issues in the long-term, the disruption it generates can make things worse in the short-term. Road renovation also needs to be carefully thought out. Projects that divert traffic away from city centre, such as the Eastern Bypass, are a clear gain for places like Nairobi.

WIDENING FEEDER ROADS

But the benefit of widening feeder roads is much less clear-cut, because while they make it easier to get out of the city, they also increase the flow of cars into the city. In turn, this increases the pressure on the rest of the road network. Thus, if wider roads into and out of the city are not matched by wider roads within the city they are likely to generate even worse bottlenecks.

It is also unclear whether the current road-building programme will be sufficient to cope with population growth rates. At the present pace of expansion, Nairobi will soon reach 1 million motor vehicles, which would represent a trebling of the 2012 figure. Even if all of the proposed new developments come to pass, the percentage increase in the road network will be tiny by comparison.

It is, therefore, understandable that politicians have been looking for alternative ways to improve the situation. Mr Kidero has proposed a number of plans, including investing Sh58 billion in cable car system and introducing yellow boxes to keep intersections clear.

Neither plan has met much enthusiasm from Nairobians. The refusal of drivers to respect the yellow lines led to the swift collapse of the new rules, while the limited capacity and slow speed of the cable cars – which can only go at 30 km an hour – has made them a topic of ridicule in some circles.

For his part, Sonko has suggested rethinking the working day. In an interview with Citizen, he explained “I think it is important to adjust the usual 8am to 5pm working time and adjust it to ensure not everyone is on the road at the same time … In this regard, the government will need to take bold steps by offering some of its crucial services on a 24-hour basis.

This way, Nairobi residents can adjust their working schedule to ensure some of them take up night shifts”. However, these suggestions have also been criticised for being unrealistic.

The reluctance of many Nairobians to buy into the schemes outlined by their leaders is understandable, but for all of their limitations it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Given current demographic trends, road building will not be enough to turn rush mornings and rush afternoons back into rush hours. To do that, broader economic and social change will be required.

As Kidero has argued, alternative ways of getting to work can take the pressure off the road network. And as Sonko has suggested, more flexible working patterns – where possible – could help to spread out the traffic burden. Only if all of these strategies and more are pursued will the cost of traffic start to fall.

Dr Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University, @fromagehomme

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