Nairobi’s top traffic cop, Edward Mwamburi, called it the most stressful day of the year: the last day of last month fell on a Friday, meaning paychecks were banked and motorists were ready to party. That made the city’s clotted roads even more chaotic than usual.
“People misbehave on the roads because they see things are haywire, even people who want to be law-abiding,” he said. “If road users can’t be considerate to us and each other, then they will never respect the lights.”
Mwamburi’s frustration illustrates how the city is falling short in creating a transport system to keep up with its growth, a fate matched in rapidly urbanizing nations, says Jackie Klopp, an associate research scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at New York’s Columbia University.
“It’s a condition you see in many cities across Africa, Asia and South America,” Klopp said in a telephone interview. “It’s a set of factors that build to a perfect storm of traffic congestion. You’re seeing the 1950s and 1960s idea that we saw in the United States and other places, that you need to expand roads and things will move faster, but more people get cars and that space is filled up.”
Nairobi, the commercial hub of the second-fastest growing regional economy in Africa, accounts for about two-thirds of Kenya’s $41 billion annual economic output, which the government predicts will grow 5.8 percent this year. The crowd is only growing. Kenya’s projected 4.3 percent annual rate of urbanization from 2010 to 2015, when 12 million of its people will live in urban areas, is more than double the global average of 2 percent and above the African average of 3.6 percent, according to the United Nations.
The city’s roads were the world’s fourth-most congested, according to International Business Machines Corp.’s Commuter Pain survey in 2011. The World Health Organization estimates road accidents kill as many as 13,000 Kenyans a year. The government estimates that traffic jams cost 50 million shillings ($578,000) a day in lost productivity in the city, a base for General Electric Co. and Google Inc. and home to the UN’s headquarters in Africa.
Airtel Kenya Ltd. is among companies that run daily shuttles to its head office to increase the chances that its workers travel safely and are punctual.
“Kenya is one of the most rapidly urbanizing places in the world,” Andre Dzikus, coordinator of the urban basic services branch at the UN Human Settlements Program, or UN-Habitat, said in an interview in Nairobi. “Europe had 100 years to adjust to the number of vehicles and urbanization that is happening in Africa over 10 or 20 years. So this is taking people by surprise. The growth is much faster than how it can be responded to.”
The city has road capacity for a population one-third its current size of 3.1 million -- a figure forecast to balloon to 40 million by 2050, the equivalent of the entire country’s current population, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero said in a Feb. 12 speech.
A more than doubling of the number of vehicles on Nairobi’s roads since 2012 to 700,000, hasn’t been matched by “infrastructure and traffic management” and the city must prepare for as many as 9 million car users by 2050, Kidero said.
Efforts are under way to relieve some of the congestion. A freeway designed to divert traffic from the congested city center is nearing completion.
The UN’s Dzikus says there still isn’t enough pavement. Nairobi’s ratio of 11 percent of land dedicated to roads is below the 30 percent yardstick referenced globally, he says.
For now, baby steps are the order of the day. Programmed traffic lights, speed monitors and closed-circuit cameras that feed information into a traffic-control center have been installed since last year, delivering to Kenya innovations commonplace in the developed world for decades.
“A lot of the stuff happening with traffic control is tinkering around the edges and what is required is fundamental change with how people travel,” Gordon Pirie, deputy director of the African Centre for Cities, a research institute based in Cape Town, South Africa, said in a phone interview. “That takes land-use planning and zoning. It’s a long-term vision. There’s an argument in places like Nairobi, there’s still flexibility in making decisions on where things are located.”
The public-transit system in Nairobi is part of the problem and traffic enforcement doesn’t offer much relief.
Almost 85 percent of the city relies mainly on a fleet of 20,000 privately owned minibuses known as matatus that spew diesel and are notorious for disregarding highway laws.
Kenyan police are perceived as the second-most corruption prone institution in East Africa, according to a 2013 survey by Berlin-based Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog. Development funds are also being frittered away to graft.
“For the past 30 years nothing happened for infrastructure,” Evans Ondieki, head of transport for the county, said in an interview on March 6. “People here have benefited financially from the confusion and that has to be put to a stop.”
In the Kenyan capital, traffic crawls during rush-hour as police officers use hand motions at roundabouts including along the main highway that connects Kenya’s Mombasa port to landlocked neighbors including Uganda. The roads are often so choatic that police officers on foot can be seen running after, and catching, scofflaws.
By most indications, drivers and pedestrians are still testing the bounds of road innovations. Earlier this year, James jumped a red light to race into an empty parking space.
“I looked left and right, there were no pedestrians or cars from either side,” said James, who refused to give his full name for fear of police action. “I decided to be logical and rush across so I get this spot before someone else.”
Visionaries say the answer involves more alternatives. Elliott Sclar, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s The Earth Institute, urges planning outside of models, including those used by the World Bank and African Development Bank, that favor “motor-based mobility” projects.
“These funders essentially provide more money to build more roads,” he said. “The irony is that it’s not that they don’t need more roads, but they also need more ways of making public transport better, for people to access walking and bicycles paths and to ensure everyone has access.”
Mwamburi, the chief traffic commandent, says he believes there needs to be a crackdown on bad driving and more education on road safety to elimate the jams. “People misbehave on the roads because they see things are haywire, even people who want to be law-abiding,” Mwamburi said.
At the street level, changes are tricky to enforce, according to Willies Mauncho, who is among a group of recently trained county traffic marshals replacing police officials.
“The community tends to be negligent on the roads,” said Mauncho, as behind him a colleague pulled over a bus driver who had run a red light to talk to him before letting him go.