CONVENIENCE TO THE “RICH”, INCONVENIENCE TO THE “POOR”: SOLVING NAIROBI’S TRAFFIC JAM.
(For the purpose of this story, “rich” refers to having a lot of material resources. I am well aware that there are tonnes of very poor people with lots of money and very many rich people with little material wealth)
The story is told of a royal elephant that visited a village. The villagers sent out five blind but lazy men to bring back an accurate description of their guest to allow for an apt shed to be built. The first touched its ears and came back to describe an elephant as broad, flat and all, the next touched it’s tail and came back to describe it as long, thin, and all. Another touched it’s foot…you get the drift. The reality is that no one part described the elephant accurately. This wonder had to be perceived in its entirety: a casual view of a small part of it would not do. Besides, this magnificent creature of God is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, in building a home for it, none of the pedestrian assessments would be of any value.
The matter of traffic jams in any city is a big complex one. Many factors contribute to it, much like the elephant. Crafting a solution to it requires a comprehensive view of the factors that contribute to it, how they contribute to it, and how any measures directed at these would impact the overall plan. Also, the matter of traffic goes beyond the congestion: it goes into how it affects humans in wasted hours as well as the service to humans that is inherent in the transport. Unfortunately, complex as it is, there seem to be two opinions that have dominated this debate:
1. Matatus cause traffic (largely true)
2. more vehicles on the road cause more traffic.
This over-simplification and relatively casual approach to this elephant has resulted in several, destined to fail interventions that have caused more traffic in addition to great suffering for those who cannot afford to own private cars.
PUTTING THE “RICH” FIRST, PAYING NO ATTENTION TO THE “POOR”
The new proposal to be implemented soon proposes to have public service vehicles from all corners of the city terminate just outside the city. No doubt this will greatly relieve congestion within the CBD. Owners of private cars will be in paradise and zipping around the city in air-conditioned cars, listening to their favourite songs will be great. Unfortunately, for those who use “public transport” (strictly speaking, we don’t have this), the reverse will be true. Traveling to and from work will become a nightmare. It’s not hard to see this. First, having to catch one more connection during rush hour will cost a lot more time: yet another queue at a congested station. Then there is the matter of cost: it is foolhardy to expect that matatus will reduce fares because their turning points are not exactly in CBD. Then there are those rainy days and way more hustle. Clearly, the envisaged solution is not for them. This one will work well for the “rich”, not so for the “poor.”
MATATUS CAUSE TRAFFIC, BUT HOW?
It seems obvious but casually answering this question is in part what resulted in the banning of 14 seater matatus in favour of the more traffic-causing bigger matatus. One does not cure a problem by adopting a bigger version of it. At first, it may seem that, “bigger matatus will carry more passengers and therefore a smaller number of these will be required resulting in a reduction in the number of matatus and therefore a reduction in traffic”, right? Wrong. This thinking would be correct if matatus caused traffic mainly through their numbers. In fact, matatus cause way more traffic by their habits than by their numbers. Two overlapping matatus can cause way more traffic than 30 matatus on the correct lane. One Matatu stopping to fill up at a narrow estate junction will cause pains to hundreds of road users. Understanding these habits, one immediately sees why it may be desirable to have a smaller version of these problems. In addition, a little observation will show that there is more traffic at Matatu stages and termini than on moving sections. You will also note that as a general rule, traffic eases slower if the vehicle after a bottle-neck accelerates slowly as opposed to if they are nimble and fast. You will note that a vehicle that needs one and a half lanes to make a simple ninety-degree-turn causes more traffic than one that does not require to leave its lane.
TRAFFIC AT STAGES AND TERMINI
The most traffic occurs in these areas where:
1. There are many matatus parked, some on the road.
2. Matatus try to get into and out of the stages
3. Some Matatus pick and drop passengers on the road.
4. (you add to this list)
Most stages were built to accommodate one bus at a time. It means that whenever there are more than a few matatus, these spill onto the road and cause narrowing of the main road resulting in traffic. The big Matatus have a habit of turning into and out of the fast lane, then accelerating slowly. They are also so big that just one parked at the side of the road kills the second lane on a dual carriageway.
Between termini and stages, termini are much worse. Look at Latema road or bus station for instance. Knowing this, one can predict the impact of creating a terminus at the end of a major road (eg. Waiyaki way, Lang’ata road, Jogoo road, Mombasa Road, Thika road etc. )without creating space for the vehicles. One can expect horrendous traffic on Jogoo road for example if one was to attempt to create a terminus at City stadium. CBD will be clear, yes, but the major roads in will be terrible. Luckily, this is not just theoretical, it’s precisely what happened when this was last tried and it’s not too difficult to predict.
Ever wondered what is wrong with touting? It seems to many that the problem is just the noise made by the matatu touts. It derives that if a tout sat in a matatu, waving a sign it would solve the problem, right? Wrong. The real issue is to prevent a hundred matatus from occupying the same stage all seeking the same commuters to the same destination. In established public transport systems, one bus to a particular destination arrives at the stage, drops the passengers it has, picks those who are already there waiting to board, and then promptly leaves. The stage is therefore rarely congested with multiple buses that then spill onto the road causing ridiculous traffic. There is no “touting” thereby allowing matatus to build up at the stage. This is the true intention of outlawing touting.
THE SECOND DOOR
On the subject of decreased waiting time at stages, the bigger buses and Matatus in more established systems have a second door so that dropping and picking commuters is a quick affair. The doors themselves are fairly large. It takes half the time to fill and empty causing less congestion at the stage. This also unfortunately means that the buses sacrifice at least two seats, something owners have not been willing to do. COVID-19 has shown that it is possible.
This is senseless. It is enabled impunity that causes pain to numerous Kenyans. Small traffic following a minor accident can transform into a gridlock lasting hours just because of a few drivers overlapping. On a two-way road no less. Then after creating the fifth lane on either side, they come out of their vehicles and wonder why traffic is not moving. This is not to be cured with jail or fines, only one thing may work: “folly is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it out.” Routine Kiboko for this ukorofi will save time and end the stupidity once and for all.
THE BIGGER MATATUS NEED WIDER ROADS, BIGGER STAGES, LONGER PARKING
This is clear. If one day we opted to remove the small lorries in favour of the big trucks “ because one truck can replace carry the same goods as two small lorries and hence reduce the number of lorries and hence reduce traffic,” we will find that one truck is slower, needs more space and will cause more traffic. This thinking will not work, but if we are to force it to work, we better create wider roads so that as they navigate the junctions, go in and out of stages, they don’t block the road for other road users. There is nothing as frustrating as seeing a trailer, or a big bus for that matter trying to negotiate a tight turn in traffic.
Of course, besides the obvious long-term solutions such as light commuter rail, and well organized public transport buses, a lot can be done.
1. PUT AN END TO CBD TERMINI AND ADOPT TRANS-CBD ROUTES
Knowing that bus termini are a major point of traffic, stop any bus routes from terminating in the CBD. How does this differ from the current plan? I am proposing that routes cross the CBD, running from one state to another on the other side of the CBD. This is what Kenya Bus Service used to apply. In this way, no matatus will be allowed to park in the CBD, and commuters will still be able to board straight into CBD: A practical win-win. The only thing is to make sure that the terminating estate is not in the immediate environs of the CBD
2. ENFORCE A “NO TOUTING” RULE IN THE CBD
By this I mean a bus arrives at a stage with its doors closed, it opens it’s doors and drops the passengers it has, those at the stage board, and it closes its doors and movesn on promptly. No waiting for passengers in the CBD. Any passenger that comes after will be picked by the next bus. This would represent a big change in culture and a major move forward.
3. REMOVE THE BIGGER MATATUS AND REPLACE THEM WITH THE SMALLER MATATUS TO REDUCE TRAFFIC.
This is the exact opposite of what has been proposed. However, there is also clear evidence that the bigger matatus have caused more traffic, and removing the smaller ones hasn’t helped. Allow me to pull my “chess champion” card on this one. Think of it as a choice between Canter lorries and 16 wheel trucks. I highly recommend that you choose the Canters: they are smaller, faster, spend far less time to load and unload and therefore far less time on stages, are more maneuverable in our narrow roads, nimble and so much more. Faced with the choice between building wider roads and stages and using smaller vehicles, it’s easier and more cost-effective to use the smaller matatus. Finally, you see hundreds of big matatus waiting at stages…fill in the blanks.
An extra benefit of this move would be to reduce the dangers on our roads. Ask anyone on Jogoo road about the bullying and dangers posed by Forward Travellers matatus or by Kenya Mpya on Thika road and indeed the deaths reported and those alone should be enough to make the switch.
4. CLAMP DOWN ON OVERLAPPING
This is overdue and shouldn’t have to be said. It is the lack of punishment that has allowed this to continue. A sister to this is what happens on Outering road near fedha estate, where despite a service lane, the matatus prefer to pick passengers on the main road causing nightmarish traffic. Imagine that.
5. ELONGATE AND WIDEN THE BUS STAGES
This will reduce the number of Matatus spilling onto the road waiting for passengers. This spillage narrows the road and causes traffic. A wider stage allows for a bigger matatu to turn without blocking the inner lane as happens often with the small stages.
5. MAKE CYCLING SAFE
Cycling is a win-win for society and the individual. It can take a tonne of vehicles off the road, and is accessible to most income groups. Free gym anyone? Healthy lifestyle? Less pollution? Less reliance on oil imports? Unfortunately, it remains unsafe (no surprise that the big matatus are a big contributor to this lack of safety)
These are my suggestions. In this way, I see a win-win for the “rich” and the “poor”: traffic in the CBD will be much less for those who are driving. Those using “public transport” need not alight far from their destination or walk miles to catch a bus or necessarily spend more. Plus they’ll spend less on traffic too. In addition, we will not create bottlenecks at the end of major roads into CBD, meaning that the otherwise imminent pile-up on these roads can be avoided.
We have tried the other same solutions hoping for a different outcome with more pain and cost to the mwananchi with no benefit in terms of traffic. Perhaps it is time to try a different solution?
As usual, feel free to copy, publish, or share provided that you cite the source. Thank you.
Dr. Victor Ng’ani
2018 Kenya National Chess Champion. (Allow me to put on this hat just so that you don’t dismiss my thinking as idle, and poorly thought out 🙂 . I could have seen ahead and have actually thought about this for years. There is a similar article I wrote on the subject a few years back 🙂
29th September 2020