As urban areas continue to grow, so do their benefits and challenges. One major challenge that has become increasingly apparent in most emerging African cities is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This phenomenon was vividly portrayed by the award winning AfricanDrones project entitled ‘Unequal Scenes.’ The project used drones to visually illustrate spatio-economic divisions in urban areas through and reveal our complicity in systematic disenfranchisement.
Social conflict is steadily rising between the different societal classes in Sub Saharan Africa. Propelled by their struggle to make ends meet, the ever growing informal sector and the associated lower income groups are continually encroaching into higher income areas. The informal sector is now interwoven into the everyday life of all residents; from greengrocers (known as mama mboga in Kenya) and the second-hand clothes markets to street food vendors and informal garages. Not surprisingly, the sector’s market spans across all socio-economic levels in the society. Moreover, the spatial contestation will evidently not end soon as studies indicate that in cities like Nairobi, 60% of residents occupy only 5% of the land, and there is little land allocation for public purposes.
The most recent and visible project in Nairobi is the ‘Nairobi Expressway.’ This is a double decker toll-based highway that was recently built in partnership with the China Road and Bridge Company. On its launch and during its construction, the Cabinet Secretary (equivalent for a minister) insisted that it would be a key project in eliminating traffic congestion (commonly referred to as ‘decongesting’ the city) and that it would improve efficiency. However, as was predicted by planners and built environment professionals, this has not happened. Traffic congestion within the city, especially on the lower deck and within the more populous parts of the city, continues ‘as usual.’ Vehicle purchases are also on the rise in spite of the spike in fuel prices.
A notable bigger injustice was the removal of public transport infrastructure along the lower deck. A transect walk along Waiyaki Way revealed that from Kangemi to University Way (about 8.5 km) there is no layby for any public transport user. This is in spite of the fact that there are more than 10 different public transport routes that use the corridor. This does not include up-country vehicles.
The injustice was even more apparent when public transport operators were temporarily banned from dropping or picking passengers at Westlands. Westlands is a key business hub that witnesses hundreds of public transport users from the working class during peak hours. The previously existing layby was removed to allow for the construction of an access point for the expressway.
The ban led to public transport operators temporarily blocking off roads within the area. Eventually, the authorities were forced to give in. They allowed them to pick and drop passengers along the road as long as they do not block the access road to the expressway. The crossing point still remains very dangerous from a pedestrian user experience perspective.
The construction also saw the destruction of a lot of non motorised transport infrastructure and safe pedestrian crossing points. In response to a public outcry prompted by school children who were crossing 8 lanes while going to and from school, the authorities fenced the median and advised that children walk an extra kilometre to an old pedestrian bridge that lacks universal access.
The expressway itself has faced its own share of criticism. Users initially complained of long queues at tolling booths due to few booths and a cash-only system. Drivers also caused deadly accidents by exceeding speed limits.
Several justifications are given for the Expressway. These included increased traffic expected from JKIA airport, projected increase in car usage and part of a wider plan to reduce traffic congestion. Amusingly, one public official stated that it would contribute positively towards reducing emissions and climate change. Some call The expressway ‘the road for the rich,’ and continues to divide the city along social and economic lines. The fact that it cuts through one of the roads that expresses the traditional ‘East-West’ divide in Nairobi does not detract from this perspective.
The a city has a modal split at 40% pedestrians and 41% public transport users. One is left to wonder where considerations of social justice and equity apply. The public transport system remains unscheduled. It is highly unreliable, privately owned and target based. It experiences haphazard route changes, fare hikes, delays and little consideration for labour rights. Why the combined 80% who are pedestrians and public transport users cannot be prioritised in public projects remains unclear.