Nairobi is one city in the world that should not experience traffic congestion, at all, if the number of vehicles owned by Kenyans per capita is to be believed. Out of 182 countries ranked in the Wikipedia’s list of countries by vehicles per capita, Kenya is ranked number 146 (2010 data) with number one country being San Marino, Monaco taking the second place and US takes the third place. The bottom three countries are Solomon Islands, São Tomé and Príncipe and Togo. All other factors held constant, then, Kenya (read Nairobi), should be ranked at least 140 and below in traffic congestion.
But in August 2012, BBC reported that according to IBM’s 2011 Commuter Pain survey, roads in Nairobi are the fourth most congested in the world. A month later BBC featured 10 monster traffic jams from around the world in which traffic in Nairobi was ranked third. On traffic jam in Nairobi, Arthur Buliva summarized:
The worst thing that the British colonialists left us with were the roundabouts. These are the main source of traffic problems in Nairobi since the place to which you are headed may be very clear, but because the cars already in the roundabout have the right of way you are forced to wait.
Unpredictable traffic is the way of life here. Even if a place is only a kilometre away, you are safer leaving your house an hour ahead of time or even just walking. But laziness and pride makes walking to be frowned upon. The worst traffic jams are every Friday – when it rains even a little, you can even sleep in the road.
Traffic jam in Nairobi and in other part of the world has serious economic and other consequences. It has been estimated by the Nairobi County Government that Nairobi loses shs 50 million a day due to traffic congestion – but that’s before “traffic related stress, dysfunctional families, road rage, accidents and resulting hospitalisation”, are added, writes Fred Gori in The Standard.
To offer solutions to the menace that is traffic jam in Nairobi, Fred Gori recommends solutions such as:
1. A 24 hour economy – where we distribute the peak hours from between 6am-9am and 4pm-7pm to throughout the day by having people report to and leave work at different times of the day. As examples, Fred recommends that, “depending on the sector, let’s have a system where some arrive at work at 7am and leave at 4pm; another group reports at 9am and depart at 6pm and yet another reporting at 11am and departing at 8pm.”
2. Investment in clean and reliable public transport – where sanity is brought back to the industry. This would include defining bus types allowed to offer public transport, enabling time and bus fares predictability (bus fare regulation is already taking effect), etc.
3. Devolution – basically taking away some ministries headquarters out of Nairobi to other counties. You may call it de-urbanization.
In the article, there were four comments as this article went online, two of which offered additional solutions that we can add to the list as follows:
4. Working on rouge drivers – Kenyan drivers are one of the most indisciplined in the world. This was seen recently when the traffic police were taken out of Nairobi roads for the drivers to use traffic lights. The grid-lock that followed was a nightmare. I am not sure if sending every driver back to school will help in instilling discipline in our already out of control drivers.
5. Encouraging cycling to work – This would include construction of cycle lanes. To be on point, let me just quote an observation that Kachwanya made a few weeks ago when he visited Germany:
The simplicity in the Face of a Abundance vs the Complexity in the face of Scarcity is the amazing first impression I get in Germany compared to Kenya…people go to jobs with bikes …not mountain bikes just normal bikes
In an article dubbed Urbanisation in MEDCs, traffic congestion was mentioned as one of the problems that face urbanisation and some of the solutions that different cities have adopted include:
- park and ride schemes – this is where people drive to work but park out of the city center to take commuter buses into the city.
- cycle lanes – Enough said.
- congestion charging schemes, such as those in Durham and London
- car-pooling, as used in the USA, to encourage people to share cars. In Kenya, Travel Buddy tried to promote a similar concept but they seem to have given up.
- Low Emission Zones, as in London
- Local councils have also tried to make the roads in urban areas safer by introducing traffic calming, pedestrian zones, vehicle-exclusion zones and permit-only parking schemes.
A solution that I have personally recommended and someone in the transport ministry took seriously is the introduction of cashless payment in the matatu industry as was discussed in the article Bebapay can sanitize the matatu industry. I hope the same person will take this article seriously, too.
The solutions that have been suggested above are great and can help sort the various problems causing traffic jam in Nairobi. But none of these solutions will be effective in tackling traffic menace caused by over supply of matatus.
Over supply of matatus
On Thursday I attended a function by Nairobi County on the launch of E-Payment for parking charges. In the function there were two generalized statistics that were thrown at us that caught my attention. Dr. Evans Kidero mentioned that there are 2 million Nairobians commuting to and from work on a daily basis. These Nairobians, Governor Kidero said, are being served by 30,000 matatus, of which only 11,000 pay the parking fees. Kidero urged those paying the parking fees to help him get rid of the other 19,000 matatus so that the legitimate operators can “make increased number of trips and reduce traffic congestion”.
The statement by Kidero made me thinking, “how many matutus do Nairobians need?”. Working with averages will be important. Assuming:
- That matatus allowed in our roads were at least the 40 seater ones,
- That Nairobians live an average of 20Kms from work,
- That the matatus traveled at an average speed of 50KPH without traffic,
- That one matatu will work for 16 hours (6am to 10pm)
- Then Nairobi only needs 3,125 matatus, which is only 10% of the current number of matatus on Nairobi roads. Looking at it from the other side, Nairobi has 10 times (1000%) more matatus than necessary.
The number 3125 is arrived at by assuming that at 50KPH one matatu will take about one hour round trip (48 minutes to be exact) on a 20Kms route hence transport 640 passengers over the 16 hours period.
To put this in perspective, the Githurai 45 and 44 routes (Kahawa West etc) were mentioned to have more than two hundred 60 seater buses; yet the 200 meters parking space at Ronald Ngala street can only accommodate 16 such buses. If the excess buses are are assumed to be distributed evenly across the routes, then the 44/45 routes only need 20 buses, which would be effectively served by the availed parking space at Ronald Ngala.
The current free market structure in the matatu industry has seen an excess of 27,000 matutus plying Nairobi routes. The extra 27,000 matatus competing for passengers force them to rush as they need to beat the queues and make as many trips as they possibly can. Given that the matatus are now forced to queue for passengers they end up making an average 6 trips a day according to data provided by a friend who owns a matatu on the 4W route, which is only 37.5% of the optimum number of trips if there was no traffic jam.
The heightened competition hence the need to rush force the matatus to disobey the traffic rules and that’s why they don’t have time to pick and drop passengers at designated bus stops or just move out of the road to do the same. They overlap, speed, and basically disobey all the traffic rules – and these behaviors not only contribute to over 90% (guestimate) of Nairobi’s traffic jam but also play a big role in developing the bad driving habits by Kenyans – which also contribute to more traffic jam in Nairobi.
An argument that would be used against limiting the supply of matatus to let’s say a maximum of 1 matatu for every 500 hundred commuters, is the free market argument. Free market requires that authorities do not control suppliers of goods/services but rather let the supply-demand paradigm define the operations in the market.
As much as the free market argument is formidable, there are markets that need to be regulated as over supply does not cause suffering to the weak but to every player in the market – hence no one will be forced to back off due to dwindling revenues. In the matatu industry for instance, there is no one able to make the optimum 16 trips per day but everyone is forced to reduce the number of trips to an average of 6 per day. As more matatus continue entering the market, the share of passengers continue to get evenly distributed (thanks to queuing requirement by the SACCOs) so every player shares in the suffering.
Matatus in Nairobi should be limited to 4000
As alluded to above, the number of matatus in Nairobi should be set at 4,000 or, to take care of population growth, they should be set at 1 matatu for ever 500 commuters. This can be done by first redefining the public transport vehicle which should not be a bus with less than 40 seater capacity, road worthiness, etc. Secondly, the licensing of new matatus can be set such that only a limited number of matatus can be registered for operations per month/year. Lastly, the authorities must always be on the look out for matatus that are not road worthy so that they are removed, immediately, from the roads.
In addition to effecting other traffic jam solutions such as controlling working hours as suggested by Fred Gori (to eliminate rush hours), de-urbanization, encouraging car owners to use public transport and to encourage more people to cycle to work, removal of the excess matatus from our roads can eliminate, in total, the traffic jam in Nairobi.