Woe unto you if any part of your day involves getting from one side of the city to the other.
On paper, Lang’ata is just 7km from Nairobi’s Central Business District. This factoid has long been a major selling point for the middle-class suburb, nestled between the super-rich mansions of Karen and the vast informal settlement in Kibera.
Anywhere else in the world, this rare cluster of relatively affordable houses overlooking the only national park in a capital city and served by at least four public transport routes would be a major housing market. But for most of its lifetime, the neighbourhood has been blighted by its notoriously poor water supply and legendary traffic.
It’s hard to impress upon a visitor just how bad Nairobi’s traffic is, and how much worse it is now than it’s ever been. Journeys that take five to ten minutes off-peak can take up to an hour during peak hours. That’s an hour of angrily watching as individuals flout even the most basic traffic rules, matatus drive on the sidewalks, pedestrians jaywalk, and policemen solicit bribes as the worst side of a normally pleasant people surfaces. And all despite improvements to the ailing road network, including the bypass system designed to reduce the need to enter the city centre in order to cross Nairobi.
In fact, in 2014, Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero said that the city’s traffic costs the country an estimated $570,000 a day in lost productivity.
It’s frustrating that almost none of Nairobi’s traffic problems are irresolvable, and so many hinge on poor planning or implementation. Responsibility ultimately comes down to policy failures at the county and national levels. And as it stands, senior government at all levels has resorted to self-preservation − using sirens and irate police officers to bully their way through the jams − rather than dealing with the traffic itself.
Some of the problem also stems from the fact the city was built for 100,000 people and today hosts an estimated 3-4 million, and counting. Kenya is highly centralised with a rapidly growing population, and the envisaged fruits of the devolution enacted in the 2010 constitution have been slow to materialise. As a result, Nairobi remains the home of opportunity for many, and rural-urban migration continues to add significantly to the city’s expansion.
At the same time, an influx of foreign workers feeding into East Africa’s vast NGO industry complicates matters further, driving prices for properties near the CBD out of the reach of most locals, pushing them into distant suburbs. Given that most international non-profits prohibit foreign workers from using Kenya’s infamous public transit system, more foreigners also means more cars.
And so, the capital is still growing fast, only instead of expanding upwards, the city has expanded outwards, swallowing commuter towns like Thika, Kiambu, Rongai and Athi River and substantial portions of the protected Karura and Ngong’ Forests and Nairobi National Park. This expansion has done nothing for the traffic woes, only adding to the distances in which people have to be miserable.
Nairobi’s layout is also extremely centralised, with almost all government offices located in the tiny CBD or the overlooking neighbourhood of Upper Hill. With almost all offices maintaining a strict 8am to 5pm routine, this means that between 6am and 8:30am, possibly millions of people are pouring into this small area; and between 4:45pm and 6:30pm, they are all trudging out.
This means school children have to catch the bus at 5:30am if they hope to be in school by 8am. This means having to leave your house at 5am if you have an 11am flight. And woe unto you if any part of your day involves getting from one side of the city to the other.
Seeing red, running red lights
Nairobi’s traffic nightmare is exacerbated by its chaotic “public transit system”, a term used loosely here. Buses and minivans simply cannot move 4 million people around in a country with fixed office hours quickly, safely and without adding to the traffic nightmare. And matatus only make sense as a form of efficiency by demonstrating the very characteristics that make them a nuisance to other drivers – namely, ignoring traffic laws and bribing their way out of any attempts at accountability.
Yet matatus are not the only bad drivers, and some traffic problems are created by individual Kenyan drivers themselves. The same misguided idea that everything is permissible as long as I’m the only one doing it and I don’t get caught is evident in the way many drive.
They refuse to yield at junctions to preserve a few-second advantage, even if it blocks drivers in the perpendicular lane; they stop in the middle of a highway to pick up passengers or talk to them; and they honk to bully drivers into ignoring red lights. Nairobi drivers can plead for better roads but will they use them well if they got them?
For commuters watching the bullies drive by, matatus and private cars nevertheless remain the first choice. Alternatives exist, but they struggle. A train brings day labourers from Kibera into the Central Business District, and a single commuter rail line feeds the labour lines of the city’s industrial area. Although the publicly-owned Kenya Bus Service still operates, it was hollowed out by the economic collapse in the 1990s and finally brought to near-death by the business interests of senior government officials who underfunded it and permitted poorly regulated alternatives to flourish instead.
In addition, many residents of informal settlements cycle but the city’s tiny bicycle path system has so far been restricted to the upmarket suburbs of Kileleshwa and Kilimani where people primarily cycle for leisure. A significant portion of Nairobi’s residents, especially in the Kibera informal settlement that abuts Lang’ata, simply walks even though many roads have no pavements.
Driven round the bend
And so, for at least 3 weeks after payday, most of Nairobi drives or is driven – or rather sits in traffic. By the time we get to work, we are tired, angry and need an hour to get it together so we can deal with the existential pressure of being Kenyan.
Conventional wisdom has it that political revolutions must be fomented by the middle class, and I posit that part of political apathy we see in Nairobi comes from the fact that most of the middle class is just too tired to do more than crack a few jokes on social media.
With its current traffic problems, Nairobi is like an overweight glutton whose clogged arteries keep him perpetually moments away from a fatal heart attack. Nairobi is desperate for clinical surgery, for an efficient public transit system – commuter rail, trams, 52-seater buses – and practical solutions as well as the political courage to take on the matatu cartels and finally put the patient on the path to full health.
Nairobi needs a leader who loves this city and wants it to work, though sadly the current crop of parties interested in county government suggests we’ll be waiting a long time before we make any forward progress – an experience that’s all too familiar to Nairobi’s commuters.
Nanjala Nyabola is a Kenyan writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.