Monday, November 04, 2019

We may not need new roads

There is a hierarchy to personal transport solutions. At the very top is the chauffeur-driven, outrider-escorted, route-secured head of state or government. At the very bottom is the pedestrian without access to a footpath of any kind. In between, though, there are combinations and permutations of travel to boggle the mind. Personal cars, taxicabs, rideshares, shared taxis (aka matatus), buses, trains, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians on footpaths. In Nairobi, commuting is dominated by pedestrians, motorcycle taxis, personal cars, matatus and buses - in that order, more or less. But, between Mlolongo (or the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport) and James Gichuru Road (Mombasa Road - Uhuru Highway - Waiyaki Way) commuting is dominated by personal cars and matatus, with all three sections experiencing epic traffic jams during peak hours and, quite often, during off-peak hours.

The solution, we have been told for the past seven years, is an elevated road that funnels traffic from Mlolongo/JKIA speedily to the James Gichuru Road (JGR) intersection. Some urban planners who know a thing or two have decried the proposal as ill-conceived and have pointed out that Kenyan experience shows that the traffic jams will only be ameliorated for a short while. Others have pointed out that the value of properties along the elevated road will fall because of the noise, the heat-sink effect and the influx of street families underneath the elevated road at key points. Still others have pointed out the negative environmental impacts, especially the increase in air and noise pollution, that a doubling of motor able roads will have along the path of the proposed elevated highway. Even if portions of Uhuru Part/Central Park remain un-excised for road construction, the negative environmental impacts  on the Parks will be significant.

Nairobi, and Kenya, almost always adapts to its transportation challenges. The matatus were a response to the relative inefficiency (and geographical discrimination) of the bus system. Matatus were fast and nimble, and very competitive on fares. The Kenya Bus Service, in all its official iterations, has rule-bound, inflexible and terrible at pricing its fares efficiently. For about a decade or so, the golden era between 1985 and 1995, KBS and matatus co-existed peaceably enough to produce a transport system that catered for the needs of rapidly expanding urban population. Nobody cared about the time taken between JKIA and JGR because, and be honest, there were very few people who made the twenty-six kilometre trip every single day.

But something terrible happened when John Njoroge Michuki became the Minister for Transport. In fully liberalising the public transport system, Minister Michuki failed to account for a few key reasons why it had become so bad. First, rent-seeking became commonplace. KBS faced increasing competition from laxly policed or regulated matatus owned by City Councillors, Cabinet Minsters, policemen and other well-connected entrepreneurs. While it was required to meet the terms of its license with the City Council, matatu operators were not: minimum fleet requirements, minimum services, safety, fare pricing and city-wide service were, more or less, waived for matatus but not KBS. Coupled with an economy that had nosedived and rising cost of operations, KBS scaled back its services until it went belly up, bought out by Britain's Stagecoach before the whole thing collapsed. It briefly tried to fight on when it introduced the quickly-popular Shuttle service - matatu-sized minibuses that competed with matatus in terms of efficiency and pricing. But by then it was too late and General Motors East Africa repossessed its minibuses and KBS went out of business. It lives on in the name of KBS Management Services, a pale shadow of its former self.

Since the collapse of KBS and the infrastructure that had supported its operations (Central Bus Stations and the termini at Kawangware, Kangemi, Eastleigh, Umoja II, Dandora and Kariobangi), and the full liberalisation of public transportation, Nairobi has had a public transport system in name only. It is disparate operators plying their trade without a policy to cohere their efforts. The result is chaos - Thika Superhighway, Ngong Road Expansion, Kenya Railways commuter trains, rideshare service providers, on-again-off-again NYS bus services, and over two dozen matatu saccos that exist only to maximise profit at all costs for their members, not collaborate to build an effective, efficient and affordable system. The JKIA - JGR expressway is simply more of the chaos. It may address the needs of a subset of commuters but it will in all likelihood contribute to the chaos, not provide a sustainable solution to the problems.

For now, the only service providers who have the institutional knowledge necessary to move millions of Nairobi residents from home to work and back again are the much maligned matatu industry. If they are not properly incentivised to provide city-wide services at a minimum level of safety and ride quality, all the new road real estate will not resolve the public transport chaos we are currently experiencing. This means certainty in regulation - everyone plays by the same rules as to fleet size, safety, quality of service and city-wide service provision (the last is the deal-breaker). Matatus operators that only offer services on a handful should be wound up or folded into the operation s of those that offer more extensive services. It may turn out that we don't need new roads after all.

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