Monday, April 10, 2017

On public transport

Public transportation is a system where buses, trains, subways, and other forms of transportation that charge set fares, run on fixed routes, and are available to the public. The system may be owned and operated by the government, private investors or a combination of both. What is certain, though, is that the system is supposed to transport the largest number of commuters, usually in an urban area, for a set fare that is usually many multiples lower than the cost of operating a private vehicle.

Nairobi's public transportation system is entirely a private one. Buses, minibuses and vans form the core of the system. Part of it is in the hands of companies with large fleets; but the vast part of it is made up of private investors who own and operate one or two vehicles. Competition in the sector is cut-throat; for some, investment in the sector has ended in tears, having lost their investment to competition and organised criminal organisations that unofficially police the sector.

The national government (through the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development) and the county government have failed to make private investment in public transportation worthwhile and the effect has been, to my mind, oversaturation, recklessness, losses. In other words, the failures of the Government have resulted in chaos.

Part of the problem has been that the regulation of the sector is more miss than hit; for example, the National Transport Safety Authority is responsible for issuing permits to public service vehicles to operate on public roads. These permits are usually issued after a road-worthiness assessment of the vehicles. It is trite knowledge that large swathes of PSV fleets are unroadworthy; the same accusation of corruption against law enforcement officers can be levelled against NTSA officials when it comes to the issuance of permits to PSV owners or operators.

One other aspect of the problem in Nairobi is that the infrastructure available to PSVs (as well as other road-users) is shambolic and inadequate. As opposed to two decades ago when PSVs used to operate on set schedules along their assigned routes, PSVs spend considerable amounts of time parked at termini, stages and roadsides waiting to pick up a full complement of passengers before moving. If even a fraction of the estimated 30,000 PSVs in Nairobi did that, it means that substantial road infrastructure is occupied by obstructing PSVs. This affects traffic flow, especially on busy main roads, causing congestion an increasing the likelihood of road traffic accidents. Add to the fact that pavements, road signs, traffic lights and road markings are almost always absent or inoperational, the chaos on the roads is usually exacerbated to unimaginable proportions.

Poor enforcement of rules and regulations also contributes to our traffic problems. Coupled by the lackadaisical attitude of the NTSA when it comes to licensing PSV and PSV crews, the police have to shoulder their share of the blame for permitting many PSV crews to operate with criminal impunity: driving on the wrong side of the road, stopping in inappropriate places to pick up or drop off passengers, speeding, occupying more than one lane at a time, overlapping...these are just some of the traffic infractions that PSV crews routinely engage in. The impunity of PSV crews emboldens private motorists and taxi crews to engage in the same blatant violations of the law. The result is traffic chaos.

Finally, little serious thought is given to pedestrians, handcart pushers, cyclists and boda boda riders as legitimate road-users. It is why pedestrian space is slowly being encroached on not just by buildings expanding their footprints using fences or walls, but also unlicensed "hawkers" who camp out on the pavements, and boda bodas and motor vehicles parked on pavements because parking space is at high premium these days. Consequently, more and more pedestrians are now compelled to "encroach" onto the roads, putting life and limb at increased risk and compelling motorists and PSV crews to often swerve to avoid them.

The solution is unlikely to be Government investment in BRTs, subways, light rails or urban mass transit systems. Not at first, any way. Solutions should start by rethinking public transportation in light of the changed mindsets of operators or owners of PSVs. If they will no longer operate on set schedules, then the logical first step is to increase the infrastructure available to stationary PSVs so that they are no longer obstructions on roads. Second must be stricter enforcement of all rules and regulations. Unroadworthy vehicles must not be permitted onto public roads and PSV  crews that break traffic rules must be punished. Third, safety infrastructure must be provided: road signs, traffic lights and lane markings. Fourth, infrastructure must be redesigned to accommodate boda bodas, cyclists and handcart pushers as well as increased numbers of pedestrians and "hawkers". Finally, more parking for private cars must be provided or built.

These solutions must be co-ordinated between the key stakeholders: national and county governments, NTSA and national police, PSV owners, operators and crews, and private motorists and pedestrians' associations. If the only solution on the table is light rail/BRT/Mass Transit System, nothing will change.

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