Tuesday, March 18, 2014

0 Share the road in Nairobi – Need for green transport including rail, walking and cycling infrastructure

By Dr. SM Mureithi

Photo Courtesy of BikeNoob.com

I am definitely not a morose, but in January, 2013, I was very saddened by some news that I read in the Daily Nation, that ‘A woman lost her life in Kawangware after being pushed out of a moving bus’ actually because of KShs. 10. I felt very sad. What a loss of a soul; somebody’s daughter, a wife, a mother. Maybe she was a single parent and her children were waiting for her to return with food the whole day. Maybe she was going for a job interview, who knows.

What makes me even sadder even today is the fact that there are millions of Nairobi residents (hereafter referred to as Nairobians) who cannot afford a decent life, leave alone have enough for transport. Nairobi had a population of about 3.1 million according to year 2009 population census. It has been estimated that about 60% of the Nairobians, live in the slums. About 85% of these live under a dollar a day, and are jobless. Now I hope you start getting the picture of why one can board a matatu (privately-operated mini-vans and buses, referred as ‘public’ transport in Kenya) without enough fare, or walk like many do. It is normal for Nairobians.

Nairobi as a city was designed by the British colonial masters as their capital for the British East Africa in 1907, and it eventually became the capital of a free Kenyan republic in 1963. The roads were designed to suit their need for that time, only for motor vehicles, that we refer simply as cars. Any other road-user was not foreseen, be it a walker, a jogger or a cyclist.

Let us excuse the colonial city planners for now. That was their time. But do not be fooled, in Britain, cycling is the order of the day. Fast forward Nairobi to 2013, we are probably over 4 million of us. The question is how we can share the road that was designed for only a few cars passing there in a day. It is absurd to have ‘roads just for cars’ while over 80% of the city residents do not drive. This is a policy, planning and a visionary issue.

Let’s go back to the soul we lost in Kawangware. Had that lady been cycling alongside that matatu, would she have lost her life? I guess not. May be she would have saved the Kshs. 30 she already paid the conductor before she was thrown out for lack of a 10 bob. She would also most likely be enjoying good health emanating from the cycling physical exercise. Thirdly, she would be free - from embarrassment, harassment, abuse and security risk experienced by matatu passengers at times. Free from being tossed from a moving bus to her untimely death.

I know all the Nairobians, and especially the poor in the slums, those struggling to balance their budgets and the lower-middle class living with more month than money understand this. I urge you to talk to your leaders about the need you have for ‘walking and cycling infrastructure’ in Nairobi Metropolitan. Nairobians want to save, live healthier lives and be free.

Lately, we are experiencing very notorious traffic congestion in all the major roads in the city. The promise of jam free city with the completion of the Thika Super-Highway, creation of By-passes and other links has evaporated. Why is this? We build the road for cars, and as a result, we have more of them in the road. Business-as-usual (BAU) will significantly enlarge vehicle fleets and exacerbate their costs to society.

I also call upon all the authorities in charge of our city roads (Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, Nairobi City County Government, Kenya Roads Board, Kenya Urban Roads Authority –KURA, The Kenya Police Service, and our elected leaders – the Governor, Senator, Women Representative, MPs and County Representatives) and any other stakeholders and development partners to take this into consideration for the sake of the urban-poor in Nairobi. The more easily and cheaper people can move, the more they can do business, work, develop themselves, and get out of poverty.

We need to in fact include ‘walking and cycling infrastructure’ in all the current and proposed projects in the Nairobi Metropolitan. I am very encouraged to see this has been done along the Thika Super Highway and in the upgraded Kileleshwa Roads. However, the walking and cycling infrastructure are still not fully functional as they lack safety in the junctions and roundabouts. We need to do it having the ‘departure and destination of the cyclist in mind, including safe passage on junctions, roundabouts and cross-sections’. We also need to overhaul the Highway Code to include human powered vehicles (HPVs), basically, bicycles. This should be included in the driving schools curricula too.

Therefore, this is a call to ‘share the road in Nairobi’, for the following main reasons:

First, poverty alleviation – the urban poor spend at least 30% of their meagre income on transport. Walking and cycling infrastructure will empower the poor Nairobians through bus-fare savings and boosting their dignity as a result of the ability to maneuver around the city without being dependent on matatus for transport. For instance, when it rains in Nairobi, fares of most popular routes at times spike up to more than double. For people living on less than a dollar a day, or on a minimal wage, this is simply not affordable and they have to walk to work or back. A bicycle would be a welcome alternative that majority of such people would not hesitate to acquire, even on loans, as long as there is enabling infrastructure. Indeed, such an agenda should be part of the Kenya’s Vision 2030 for all Cities and County Headquarters. New cities like Tatu City and Konza Technology City should out rightly include these infrastructures in their designs and plans, if they have not done so. This proposal is therefore, in tandem with the current’s government policy of reducing the cost of living especially for the poor Kenyans, Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the Millennium Development Goals.

Second, a healthier population - the physical exercise gained from cycling is generally linked with increased health and well-being. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is second only to tobacco smoking as a health risk in developed countries, and this is associated with many tens of billions of dollars of healthcare costs. The WHO suggests that increasing physical activity is a public health 'best buy', and that cycling (and walking of course) is a 'highly suitable activity' for this purpose.

Third, employment creation – think of local contractors winning the walking, cycling and bicycle-parking infrastructure tenders, investors supplying the cycling gears and accessories, bicycle-for-hire businesses, bicycle repair shops on various routes, biking schools, ease of people movements, petty errands on bicycle, among others.

Fourthly, alleviation to chronic traffic congestion problem in the city – if the city residents are provided with functional and safe walking and cycling infrastructure, many would opt to walk and cycle rather than drive and be stuck in the crazy Nairobi jams for hours. I have witnessed this work in Ghent City in Belgium where I lived for four years. In all that time, bicycle was my main means of transport. I only needed to use a bus or a train when going far out of the city.

Fifth, promotion of sport industry especially for the youth – Development of functional walking and cycling infrastructure will encourage many youth to enter into cycling sport, which can also employ many. A safe well maintained cycle track from Nairobi to Nakuru is an ideal training and practice ground. For long distance, it does not have to be on both sides of the highway, unless it is a dual-carriage way.

Six, reduced road accidents and improved access to markets and other essential facilities – hence boosting the individual household, county as well as the national economy.

Seven, as we confront on the global and local problem of climate change, we need to act collectively as well as individually in order to reduce our net and per-capita carbon foot-print, respectively.

Therefore, a three-pronged investment strategy is needed to transform the city transportation sector: promote access instead of mobility; shift to less harmful modes of transportation; and improve vehicles towards lower carbon intensity and pollution. A fundamental shift in investment patterns is needed towards public (rail transport in Kenya) transport and non-motorised transport, based on the principles of avoiding or reducing trips though integrating land use and transport planning and enabling more localized production and consumption. Shifting to more environmentally efficient modes such as public and non-motorised transport (for passenger transport) and to rail and water transport if recommended by UNEP. Investment in public transport infrastructure that promotes walking and cycling generates jobs, improves well-being and can add considerable value to regional and national economy.

Please give me safe and functional walking and cycling infrastructure (including parking) in Nairobi and I’ll leave my car at home, save fuel, time and money, enjoy the cycling exercise and emit much less carbon than I am doing today driving daily around the city. Cycling is enjoyable, safe, healthy, clean, cheaper hence sustainable. It is the high time we embrace it and drop the BAU thinking that builds roads for cars instead of for people!


UNEP, 2013.  Share the Road: Design for walking and cycling. http://www.unep.org/transport/sharetheroad

UNEP, 2011. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication. http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy  ISBN: 978-92-807-3143-9

The writer is a Lecturer in Land Resource Management at the University of Nairobi. He can be reached at stemureithi@uonbi.ac.ke


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