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Tell Sonko that light rail is the solution to Nairobi traffic woes



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It is a pity, indeed, that we have leaders who still believe that congestion in Nairobi’s central business district can be cured by merely tinkering around with traffic rules and regulations.
Have we forgotten that a similar experiment that sought to restrict vehicles from the Eastlands to the Muthurwa area failed miserably?

I was thoroughly amused when I heard Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, while addressing a Senate committee on Monday, describing his ban on PSVs as a permanent solution to the matatu madness. If he is serious about reducing traffic congestion in the city, he should have imposed the CBD ban on private vehicles first.

Sonko should approach the transport crisis we face today as an opportunity to implement fresh bold ideas. That assignment requires much more than tinkering with parking spaces and imposing new bus terminuses on commuters.
We are where we are because we have set very low standards for our leaders. As a society, we suffer from a culture of low expectations. We allow leaders to celebrate gestures even when what was required is boldness.

The long-term sustainable solution to the capital city’s rapid urban transport system is a light rail system that connects people from where they live to where they work.
The Ethiopians did it just a few years ago. To reduce congestion between Johannesburg, Pretoria and Oliver Tambo International Airport, the South Africans built the Gauteng Rail. Ghana recently signed a deal to build a light rail system for Accra.

I have seen many proposals for a light rail system in Nairobi. The problem is that we score very poorly when it comes to State capacity to deliver on projects promptly. What do I mean by the term State capacity?
The concept describes the speed and accuracy — also known as efficiency — at which government bureaucracy delivers projects. Within the region, Ethiopia scores much higher than we do in terms of state capacity.

Nairobi is in permanent flux, experiencing a constant process of generational and demographic change. Yet we have left the running and management of the complex urban growth patterns we are witnessing in the city to the Nairobi County government, an entity with no capacity to implement new projects on time. The county is totally bereft of new ideas.
There was a time when it was possible for a commuter to plan his day around the defunct Kenya Bus Service (KBS), which operated under a public-private partnership arrangement with the former Nairobi City Council (NCC).

Then, KBS operated under a franchise that obliged it to provide scheduled services in all parts of the city and create special routes to Pumwani Maternity Hospital and Kenyatta National Hospital. It operated on predictable time schedules and passengers would know when to expect the next bus.

The buses had corridors wide enough for standing passengers, making them the preferred mode of transport for women vegetable traders, connecting them from the farming areas around Nairobi to markets in the Eastlands.
Traffic congestion was limited because, besides private vehicles, only KBS buses were allowed into the city centre.

The rain was to start beating us in 1973, when President Jomo Kenyatta allowed matatus to operate in the CBD in total disregard of the fact that KBS had a franchise on city routes.
Under service level agreements, the company had to operate with timetables, fixed routes, a large service depot and a fleet of chase cars and inspectors.
Matatus don’t have an obligation to serve hospitals, schools and markets. In the old days, the bus company was even obligated to build bus stops for commuters.

If Sonko is serious about giving us a permanent solution, then let him announce a time frame for introducing light rail transport. Let’s have a route map for bringing in private sector investment in Nairobi’s rapid transit commuter system.
Admittedly, the city county does not have a healthy balance sheet. Sonko and company must start thinking out of the box.

Cities like Johannesburg have gone around balance sheet issues by coming up with creative ways of raising capital. They ring-fence revenues in the healthy segments of their operations, making it possible for them to issue bonds in capital markets against those revenues.
Have we forgotten that the defunct NCC used to issue bonds in our capital markets in the 1970s and ’80s?

The problem with the current leaders of Nairobi is that they approach management as if they don’t know that they are in competition with other cities for foreign investors.
Cities are campaigning between themselves for talent, innovation and investment. Nairobi needs a light rail system. Urgently.