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Why Sonko’s city decongestion plan is a complete non-starter



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Governor Mike Sonko is a joke gone too far. You don’t run a city like Nairobi through jua kali gimmicks. Let’s first educate the governor: Cities the world over give priority to commuter vehicles as opposed to private cars. This is for a reason. Ease of commuter flow is what makes big cities work. It improves economic efficiency and many other things.

One Daily Nation headline asked: Did Sonko ban the wrong vehicles (from the city centre)? That’s an emphatic yes. Traffic jams are caused by the uncontrolled movement of private cars, less so by PSVs. We all saw that in Nairobi on Monday. We saw it again when matatus went off the roads when the Michuki Rules were recently being reintroduced. The city gridlock was worse than ever.

There is a middle-class and upper-class conceit that all the transport woes of the city are caused by PSVs. We want to enjoy a stress-free drive into a matatu-free CBD as we leisurely listen to Luther Vandross crooning from the car stereo. Who cares what Wanjiku is going through to access the CBD?

Many people have this embedded mindset of matatus being the problem. More so the honchos of government like Sonko. Believe you me, they were all quite thrilled with the idea of kicking out matatus from the CBD. These guys reckon matatus must be dealt with punitively, hence all the repeated “bans” and “crackdowns” and what have you. PSVs live in an environment of constant warfare with the authorities. The bad news for officialdom is that matatus are going nowhere — not yet. Not unless you want a total shutdown of Nairobi. And not until you offer alternatives.

Make no mistake, Wanjiku saw through perfectly well the poor-versus-well-to-do class bias in the matatu CBD ban.

It was preposterous of Sonko to throw out the PSVs while simultaneously pushing for the lowering of parking fees for private cars. How utterly boneheaded can one get? And such a crazy decision can be taken when Wanjiku is expected to trek from the matatu drop-off points into the city centre, perhaps straddling a child and with luggage on her back? What if it rained?

Sonko then had the cheek to go before the Senate — on the same Monday the commuter masses were struggling to cope — and suggest Nairobi residents needed the exercise because they don’t go to the gym. Is this guy OK? Irony of ironies, those same harassed commoners Sonko was insulting had voted for him to a man.

Now that Sonko’s decongestion plan has flopped, we are yet again reminded of what we all knew: that the governor is a phoney who hawks snake oil to city residents the same way he does with his ragtag outfit called Sonko Rescue Team.

His decongestion plan was no plan. It was as pea-brained as those adolescent recordings he makes of private callers, which he posts on social media. A proper decongestion plan should be done progressively, with a long-term perspective. The first thing to remember is that a mass transit system is absolutely essential for any big city. Rich cities have subways (or metros or tubes). Others have light rail (fast trams) and BRT (bus rapid transit). Nairobi is stuck with its humble matatus. As traffic congestion gets worse, time has come to upgrade.

Nairobi’s immediate circumstances require we first operationalise BRT. Sooner or later we must then lay out the infrastructure for a light rail system. I don’t know what became of the BRT proposal. All I see is a crimson line painted along a stretch of Thika highway approaching Nairobi that marks what should be a dedicated BRT lane.

The key is to have a reliable mass transit system to get commuters into and out of the CBD efficiently, and remove the majority of private vehicles from the city centre. The Kenya Railways peri-urban commuter trains are often mentioned as the way out. I disagree.

The commuter volume they handle is a drop in the bucket. Their present route coverage is limited and the trains are few. Worse, these Kenya Railways trains that operate from Kikuyu, Dandora and Ruiru are dirty and overcrowded.

The newer 30-minute Syokimau line is much more comfortable and cleaner. Middle class types living in that neighbourhood as well as Athi River and Kitengela are fine with it. It helps that there is ample parking provided at the Syokimau station.

Let’s close this discussion with some further tutoring for Sonko. The point of mass transit systems anywhere is not to get rid of PSVs. Not at all.

The objective of mass transit is to improve commuter transport, to minimise the congestion caused by private vehicles, and to encourage everybody to use public transportation. Gradually, as a superior mode of transit entrenches itself, commuters will take to it. The matatus will eventually phase themselves out because they will be unable to compete.