Date: 19 October 2018

How a revamp of Nairobi’s public transportation can propel the city’s economic growth and mitigate a public health crisis 


One of the things that gives Nairobi its character are the famous- or infamous- matatus. For those unfamiliar, matatus are the main form of public transportation in the city. Ranging from old Nissan vans to decked-out buses, they are known for their colorful designs with paintings of hip hop stars, blasting reggae and Afrobeat music, and overchargingmzungus.For an outsider, trying to take one is a confusing and chaotic scene; for an experienced local, it’s a normal- though oftentimes aggravating- way of life. 


Traffic nightmares in Nairobi


Although about 70% of Nairobi’s 1.3 million residents use a matatu at some point every month for their commute, car ownership is rising steeply. In total, the number of vehicles in Kenya’s capital doubles every six years. As a result, the city has become notorious for its traffic jams. A recent survey has actually demonstrated that Nairobi has the second worst traffic in the world. While the average Nairobian spends 62.44 minutes in traffic per day, this number can crawl up to 2-4 hours for those living a bit further from the Central Business District. 


Once in 2015, there was a 50-km long traffic jam.


Such an inefficient system is damaging to both the environment as well as economic productivity- and not to mention the mental health of commuters going mad whilst sitting in gridlock. 



A typical scene of matatus and traffic in Nairobi


Deadly air pollution caused by vehicles


The current situation of matatus and personal vehicles is one of the main reasons why Nairobi has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. In fact, the amount of cancer-causing elements in the capital’s air is 10 times higher than the WHO’s recommended threshold. Combined with smoke from burning garbage, diesel generators, and indoor wood-fire stoves, this air pollution kills 19,000 Kenyans annually. 


Car exhaust is not only an issue due to the sheer number of vehicles on the road but also their quality. Most cars in Nairobi are dirty, secondhand ones from Japan and Europe; when they are older and no longer meet the emissions requirements in those countries, they are exported to Africa. 


Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, a day in traffic 


In addition to causing a public health crisis, road congestion presents a significant impediment to the capital’s economic growth and productivity. A whopping USD$578,000 (Sh58.4 million) is lost every day due to bottlenecks. That’s more than USD$210 million (Sh2.1billion) annually. Not only are workers less productive with all of that time spent sitting in traffic, but idling on the road increases the cost of transporting goods and also wastes fuel. Too many meetings in Nairobi have had to be canceled because workers were stuck in traffic. 


While suggestions abound about building more superhighways and expanding lanes in traffic, this is a Band-Aid solution that simply encourages more car use and has proven to not be very effective anyway. For instance, the Thika Road highway was inaugurated in 2012 with the purpose of alleviating congestion; nowadays, the superhighway itself has come to be a source of traffic. And while it is of upmost importance that the existing roads in Nairobi be improved- there are also way too many dirt roads and potholes in this city- we need to think beyond that.  


Thus, when tackling this problem, we need to realize what the most sustainable and efficient system would be. The obvious answer is a better public transportation system.    



Part of SDG 11 includes investments in public transport


Creating an efficient public transportation system 


A positive example to follow is the city of Barcelona. In that metropolis, it is almost more convenient not to have a car than to have one. An extensive underground metro system was built over a hundred years ago and can get one to wherever he or she needs to go in the city. 


There is also a very efficient bus system; unlike the matatus, with their unmarked “stages” and general sense of organized chaos, in Barcelona there are designated bus stops with the routes printed on them and even a screen showing in real time in how many minutes each bus will be arriving. Furthermore, the city has recently been implementing electric buses into its fleet. 


Buses tend to come every 10 minutes, and in peak hours the metro comes every 2 minutes. Meanwhile, with the matatus, they do not leave until all of the seats are filled. While in peak times this can happen quickly, at other times of the day it can be unpredictable. 


All of this means that it is common for a journey from one part of Barcelona to another to only take 20-35 minutes.  


Economic benefits of public transportation


Reducing the number of cars on the road through building up public transportation has many benefits. In addition to obvious environmental and public health effects, it also brings a boost to the economy. As previously discussed, shortening commute times boosts overall productivity. Yet, another positive impact is that investing in public transit is a huge job creator. Not only does the construction and implementation of a public transportation system require hiring many employees, but so does the subsequent operation of the system. In Barcelona, public transport operators are actually the largest city employers.       




Businesses surround an important metro stop in Barcelona


According to the organization UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics, or the International Association of Public Transport), “Capital investment in public transport sparks a chain reaction in economic activity up to three of four times the initial investment.” In addition to creating jobs, public transport systems attract businesses, private investment, and even tourism. Urban development tends to proliferate near important metro and bus stops, and having efficient systems improves the overall “global appeal” of a city. 


Investing in a metro and/or bus system in Nairobi presents many challenges- namely financing sources and making sure corruption doesn’t impede its implementation. However, the benefits- financial included- will far outweigh the upfront costs. If Kenya wants to become a middle-income country that attracts world-class business and doesn’t kill its citizens through air pollution, its capital city needs a more efficient, effective, and environmentally friendly public transportation system.

But maybe the new organized, electric buses can still blast Afrobeat music and be painted with Biggie Smalls.