Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Change the design

Every now and then, Nairobi's notorious public transport suffers a seizure that makes everything decidedly and determinedly worse. Yesterday was such a day. It rained, briefly, in the afternoon. Public transport was screwed up for the rest of the day and well into the evening. My commute back home always begins at the Ambassadeur Hotel stage, but the serpentine queues were to dispiriting to join. So I decided to walk the three and half kilometres to City Stadium stage to catch the NÂș36 matatu. And everything that is dysfunctional with our public transport system was revealed.

My walk took me past Tusker stage on Ronald Ngala Stree, through the Central Bus Station, down Uyoma Street to Race Course Road, then left onto River Road past the OTC stage and onto Landhies Road next to Muthurwa Market and past the Kamukunji jua kali market and finally the City Stadium stage on Jogoo Road. The number of pedestrians is massive, but it is not a problem. Cities are the people and if you don't love people then cities are not for you. The "hawkers", in their hustle, with their wares spread out on the pavement and their small children swirling in and out of pedestrians' legs, weren't a problem either. You can't knock a human who has found a way to earn a living that requires patience, resilience, people skills, a thick skin and, surprisingly on many occasions, a sunny disposition. Hawkers are Nairobi and Nairobi is hawkers.

What really was wrong is the absolute lack of space and the incredible noise that public transport generates. It is astonishing, quite frankly. Successive City Fathers have prioritised motorised transport and real estate development at the expense of small-scale and itinerant traders, and pedestrians. Witness the incumbent tom-tomming his road-building and road-repairing initiatives in competition (or is it partnership?) with the national road-building agencies and Ministry of Roads. Whenever they talk about "hawkers", they do so with disdain and anger, promising to "relocate" them to "ultra-modern" and purpose-built markets, "out of the CBD". They don't see hawkers as a valuable component of our city, humans who contribute to its vibrancy, colour and inimitable sense of hope.

It is the same attitude they bring, that they have always brought, when dealing with matatus, the second most common form of transport (after walking) in Nairobi. Most matatu operators are honest and diligent, shifting millions of Nairobians daily from home to work and back. Most matatu operators are made criminals by a system that prioritises money over people.

The three kilometres between Ambassadeur and City Stadium is a study at missed opportunities and an obsession with construction at all costs. Pavements are small, poorly designed and frequently commandeered by motorists, motorcyclists, bicyclists, mkokotenis and matatus, in addition to the pedestrians and hawkers who serve them all. Drains and sewers are broken or blocked. And when it rains, even paved pavements turn to muddy paths, forcing many onto the roads and oncoming traffic. It is no wonder that pedestrians (and hawkers) make up the vast majority of fatalities and injuries in road traffic accidents. Half the reason why pedestrians receive the short end of the stick is not just because the City isn't designing public spaces with pedestrians in mind, it is also because building owners have decided to maximise the space they occupy by building on all of it, and building walls on pavements to keep out the riffraff. As a result, more and more people are walking on lesser and lesser space and, consequently, a hierarchy of blame ensues: motorists blame boda bodas who in turn blame mkokotenis who in turn blame pedestrians and who in turn blame hawkers and who are frequently the violent target of the City itself.

We should design the city with the people in mind, re-engineer it to make lives more livable. If we persist in designing the city for private motorists and BRTs that we will rarely use, this sense of violence will never end. For sure, unless dukas spring up where pedestrians and hawkers do business, they will never truly go away. Our problem is not an infrastructure one. It is a design one. Our design problems all emanate from a refusal to see humans, in all their colourful variety, as the reason the city exists. Change the design.

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