By Jackqueline Maigua
Those who have lived in Nairobi County in yesteryears remember with nostalgia the good old days when traffic in the city was sparse. Public transport operated by the minute, and you were sure to catch a bus according to a pinned up timetables on the designated stages.
Over the years, however, things seemed to have gone from good to bad, then to worse, like they currently are. Gridlock, or ‘traffic jams’ as Kenyans are accustomed to saying, have become a permanent feature on our roads.
Many city residents hardly have a good night’s rest as they have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to make way to their places of work or school before traffic becomes a nightmare. This sad state of affairs is compounded by the fact that they slept late for the same reason.
Now, traffic jams reveal two important things in a country. On one hand, they serve as a barometer of economic performance. A high number of people buying cars means that they can afford it. It is a good sign of an increase in disposable income, showing people have moved on from basic needs.
Conversely, gridlock is also an indictment of urban planning. It means that a town has been unable to manage, or contain, its expansion, and is bursting at the seams. It is the same case, for instance, with uncollected garbage and leaking sewers. It betrays a lack of anticipation by those whose responsibility it is to foresee such trends, and plan ahead.
Today, gridlock has spread to both major and upcoming urban areas. Residents of towns like Nyeri in Mt Kenya region, Embu in Eastern, and Garissa in the North East, are now complaining of delays on the road during peak hours. Indeed, the situation has reached a crisis level.
According to World Bank estimates, traffic jams cost the country Sh 50 million a day in lost productivity, which accounts for 12.7 per cent of Kenya’s gross domestic product. During his tenure, former Nairobi County Governor, Dr Evans Kidero, placed the annual cost of traffic jams in the city at Sh 91.4 billion.
The private sector has suffered the most in the status quo, as employees get late to work. Companies have also been forced to invest heavily in programmes designed in cutting non-essential travel. Delivery costs have also been drastically reduced to avoid deficiencies in the transportation infrastructure system.
Investing in fresh infrastructure to cater for the increasing demands can be a daunting task, given the current state of the economy. Currently, there are numerous stalled infrastructural projects due to a credit squeeze in the country.
But we should be ingenious like some countries faced with a similar crisis. In 2015, for instance, Egypt announced plans to abandon Cairo as its capital city by building a brand new USD 45 billion city. The town, which was envisaged to stretch 150 square miles and accommodate as many as seven million people, was hailed as “the catalyst for an Egyptian renaissance” and “a momentous endeavour to build national spirit, foster consensus and provide for the country’s sustainable long-term growth”.
In Nigeria, the Government moved its nerve centre from Lagos to Abuja, after the former became totally unmanageable from crumbling infrastructure, overpopulation, gridlock and other acute problems of urbanisation. In India, New Delhi was built next to the old Delhi capital, while in Brazil, the Government moved its business from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia.
Indeed, satellite cities can cure many of the challenges currently bedevilling overcrowded urban areas. They can fill in gaps that public sector finances are unable to. Since these projects are purposely built, they have set boundaries beyond which their residents cannot expand, once the planned capacity has been attained.
The trend globally involves developing mixed-use properties encompassing homes, schools, offices, shopping districts, medical facilities, nature areas, sport and entertainment complexes, and manufacturing precincts. We need urban planners bold enough to create a new way of living and thinking for Kenyans that aims at creating a unique live, work and play environment, free from traffic congestion and long-distance commuting.
The writer is Head of Urban Management, Tatu City