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Better planning can end city traffic chaos




Nairobians walk to work on Monday after the county government banned matatus from accessing the city centre. PHOTO | NMG 

If just one Mad Monday were enough to improve our public sector planning faculties, it would be worth the pain of one bad day. Because, for sure, this Monday was mad and bad enough to merit a major overhaul in the way our rulers implement new measures.

For anyone lucky enough not to be in Nairobi, our week opened to a new order: PSVs, as in buses and matatus, were banned from entering the city’s Central Business District (CBD).

The declared reason was decongestion.

This is because, apparently, it now requires ‘genius’ status to comprehend that public transport reduces congestion.

Happily, from my obviously ‘genius’ position, I can compute that if 14 people in a matatu cannot get anywhere near to work, and become 14 people in their own vehicles, or even 14 people sharing several cars, congestion goes up, not down.

It’s this funny little sum (and reality) that has seen other cities putting limits on private vehicles, not public ones, to reduce the volume of traffic in their central districts.

But we in Kenya like to innovate. So, in bold manner, we banned public transport into, out of, and across our ‘central’, and note that word central (as in, sat at the hub of other outlying areas) district. And chaos, inevitably, followed.

Now here, in what we business types call a case study, is the epitome of our public sector’s policy formulation and implementation weakness. First base, we skip the little step called an ‘outcomes analysis’. So how does that life-saving and policy-essential skill go? Well, something like this:

If I walk across Thika Highway with a blindfold on, what are the outcomes likely to be?

This remarkable little analysis drives most of what we do, in staying alive, keeping our friends, raising our children, and generally achieving our aims and our own wellbeing in life.

And the same goes for public policy. So, for Mad Monday, the key question is, if I ban public transport in the CBD, what are the consequences likely to be?

Question asked, they are fairly predictable.

The CBD sits in the heart of Nairobi, a passage every day for literally thousands of workers from, say, homes in Eastlands to jobs in Westlands or Upper Hill, or from Athi River to Waiyaki Way, and so on. The routes around CBD are few. So if we block out the CBD, we are going to create gridlock on the remaining cross-city roads. We did.

If commuters know the public transport they normally use is now blocked from crossing the city, many will instead use their own vehicles. They did.

If the matatus stop functioning cross city, many commuters are going to be left stranded, and forced to walk many kilometres to find a solution. They were.

And then we can add an extra: if we set up a few ‘allowed’ PSV offload and onload points around the city centre, they are going to get crushed with the volumes. They were.

Indeed, I literally studied photos of the Ngara footbridge in horror, a clear several hundred people crushed on it barely moving, let’s say 400 of them at 60kg, was that bridge built to support 24 tonnes of people – to me, it looked like a bridge collapse and public catastrophe in the making. I wouldn’t have queued for it.

However, my staff, resilient as ever, born, raised and used to life in our no-outcomes, no-planning, no-transition world said, it will get better. The matatus will start to work out alternative routes. Nice, said I. So why didn’t we do that first? Progressively roll out new routes, finally close the city centre? Sorry, let’s forget managing transition, or putting in place extra lateral routes, or any of that other nonsense. Let’s get even more basic: why are we banning public transport anyway?

Well we unbanned it Tuesday, so that’s good. And we may never actually know the reason for it. I have to believe it isn’t actually a failure to compute that 14 x 1 is more vehicles than 1 x 14.

But even if the sums are hard, could we plea, dear policy makers, for a tiny bit of outcomes planning in the mix going forwards?