Friday, January 03, 2020

"I told you so" is not a good strategy

I spend a great deal of time on Twitter. Yesterday, there was a brief, revealing conversation about a fatal motorcycle accident. A boda boda rider and his passenger were in an accident that involved a Nissan Xtrail The boda boda rider was fatally injured - cut to four pieces, according to the person who witnessed the accident and wrote about it on Twitter. His passenger was seriously injured while the Xtrail suffered some damage. Someone retweeted the tweet about the accident with the seemingly jubilant "We thank Darwin."

Those of you who are familiar with the Darwin Awards, especially the ones awarded on Twitter, know for the most part that the videos that tend to be retweeted are usually humorous ones and presumed to be fatal - hence the "Darwin" in the Darwin awards. They are a humorous take on the theory of natural selection. In our case, the death of the boda boda rider is not a case of natural selection. It is not humorous in any way. It is deeply tragic. It is also very revealing.

There are a few Kenyans who have contributed significantly to discussing the ways we can improve urban mobility in Kenya, highlighting the benefits of non-motorised transport infrastructure and facilities and improved road designs with the aim of reducing reliance on motorised transport systems and improving the safety of road users. These are things that we should all care deeply about because they affect how we access and use the built environment that we rely on for our livelihoods.

Some of us are privileged enough to be able to plan our day down to the minute, knowing where we need to be and when, and having the capacity to organise our movements in the most efficient way possible using a mix of private vehicles and public service vehicles. Some of us are also privileged enough that we don't have to rely on motorcycle taxis. However, we are a minority among the multitudes that use a combination of private cars, PSVs and motorcycle taxi services to go about unpredictable, income-earning days. The privileged few tend to conduct their business with other similarly privileged people, and so the need for urgent flitting from appointment to appointment is not something that deeply impacts our day, hence the lesser need for motorcycle taxi services.

We tend to look down our noses at the ones that are habitually run off their feet and must therefore, rely on the risk-taking quick-as-a-flea fleet-footed motorcycle taxis that defy every known canon of road safety. On many occasions, our contempt for the users and givers of motorcycle taxi services is expressed with the smug "We thank Darwin" when injuries or death abound. In our eyes, Kenya is a wonderful country but for some of the people in it. It is why, every now and then, no lesser than high government officials make statements about the "indecency" of large swathes of the population merely because they are not in a position to lead supposedly overtly "civilised" lives but instead "paint the country in a poor light".

I cringe every time I drive in the city. It is one of the most stress-inducing activities one can engage in. The stress isn't just produced by the seemingly crazed drivers of PSVs or the reckless way in which motorcycle taxi riders navigate increasingly clogged streets but also by the way supposedly "civilised" private motorists and chauffeured government vehicles bully other road users without a twinge of remorse. It isn't just in the way that they drive, but where and how they park, defying the "civilised" conventions that they insist other motorists must abide by. In my opinion, the largest contributors to the chaos experienced on the roads are private motorists hell-bent on serving selfishly private motoring needs, the safety of all other be damned. For this reason, few, if any, contribute meaningfully to seeking or proposing solutions, smugly satisfied in declaring that they are law-abiding, and that everyone else is a scofflaw that deserves death or injury.

Motorcycle taxi riders are an entrenched part of the transport system in Kenya. Treating them like vermin - treating them with the same contempt that we treat mkokoteni pullers - is simple burying our heads in the sand about the true reasons why such risk-taking is so commonplace: the design of the road transport system is deeply flawed; its operation is highly fragmented; and few road users have a real incentive to play by the rules when it comes to road use. Pedestrians, motorists, PSV and boda boda passengers are all guilty. Acknowledging the legitimacy of the boda boda and the culpability of all road users is the first step to finding lasting solutions that enhance road safety for all. Smug I-told-you-sos are not a solution.

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