The Kenyan Government launched the Construction of the Nairobi Expressway on 16th October 2019. The project consists of a 26 Km road expansion of which 11 Km will be elevated crossing right through the city of Nairobi. The Kenya National Highways Authority had circulated a document giving some information on the proposed project. The pamphlet had flashy images and an array tables and figures directed at justifying the project to the public. Some of the images, like the number of vehicles on the road, visibly gave a false impression of reality. The complex figures and tables appeared difficult to be analysed or understood by ordinary citizens. It also didn’t mention the environmental impact of the project. With this, the colourful images are easily shared giving the project praise and acclamation.

Some of the public have been made to believe that the project will assist in ‘decongesting’ or ‘reducing traffic jams’ in the city. Others have commented that it is a sign of development based on some of the images they have seen of vehicular centric and socially divided North American, Middle Eastern and South African Cities.

Image from the Project Brochure

Nairobi faces growing socio-economic inequalities, major air quality challenges and a growing population. It is important to ask questions on the viability of the project against alternatives.

The information shared projects that the Expressway will move approximately 22,000 vehicles per day.  At first glance, this sounds like a win because at capacity that would mean 88,000 people moving across the road per day.  However, this is only a fraction of the 500,000 people that the proposed BRT Line 1 ( Mombasa Road-Uhuru Highway-Waiyaki Way) can move per day. Other mass rapid transit systems like light rail, areal cable cars or even simple busways can also move similar numbers of people or more with opportunity for creating last mile connections to adjacent estates. Investment in good multi-modal public transport enables the people to be able to interlink to different parts of the city seamlessly thus reducing travel time massively. All these can be done at a fraction of the cost of an elevated highway that is purely focused on moving cars.


As a Public-Private Partnership, the highway will be toll based. Naturally, its priority will be to attract more vehicles in order to ensure returns on investment. This implies that less priority will be given to public transport, which it has already done by reducing the number of BRT stations for line one (39 to 16) as well as number of buses to ply the route (385 to 30). This makes the public transport system difficult to set up and unattractive to use. The oxymoron here is that it falls at a time when cities are trying to rely less on vehicular traffic and less than a month after the UN Climate Summit!

Braess Paradox states that ‘Adding one or more roads to a road network can end up impeding overall traffic flow.’ This has been proven to be true with many of these urban overhead highways. Several Cities that had put up overhead highways have eventually brought them down after realizing that they didn’t assist in reducing traffic congestion. On the contrary, they tend to attract more cars and lead to changes in adjacent land use due to perceived ‘improvement of infrastructure’ leading to more congestion. If Thika Superhighway was not a lesson for Kenyans, then one wonders what will.

Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, Harbor Drive in Portland, Atocha Station precinct in Madrid and Hudson River Park in New York are some examples of overhead highways that have been brought down after being proven to be of no benefit (social, economic or environmental) to the respective cities. Some, like Cheonggyecheon and Hudson River Park were replaced by parks and green spaces as the cities worked on improving their public transport.

Prioritizing people is not popular in many of Africa’s urban development projects. This particular private public initiative will impact on a small percentage of Kenyans while the majority citizens struggle with limited mobility options (45% of Nairobian’s walk as their primary means of transport, 30-35% use para-transit and less than 20% drive). Even for those who it will impact directly, unfortunately it will not bring the efficiency and effectiveness that is promised.

Traffic Jam

The city needs to prioritize its land use management, focus on good and efficient public transport and multi-modal mobility options. What seem to be obvious people-centric options seem to have been put aside for ‘optical gigantic’ projects with short term benefit to citizens but long-term benefit to investors.

Data linked to sources. Images from KENHA document and online sources

4 thoughts on “Nairobi Expressway: Misjudged Priorities?

  1. Hi Constant!
    Topical content here as always. I too believe that this expressway is shortsighted.
    Some other long term effects of road expansion and increased car travel include downstream congestion in the CBD (due to more cars being fed into the area), increased need for parking (which is already limited), greater fuel consumption, vehicle emissions, and road accidents. This highway is just an invitation to more problems. It deeply concerning that the BRT projects are being under cut for a highway project. If the issue is congestion and moving large volumes of people, priority should be given to transport modes which can carry many people – it both increases the carrying capacity if the road and the benefits of the investment are felt by more people not just the 20% who have cars. A highway in some cases really should be a last resort solution – there are numerous ways to manage travel demand by influencing the time of day people travel, they mode they use, and encouraging more local trips and fewer long distance ones via the highway. Unfortunately this sort of thing is common even in South Africa and can often be attributed political figures wanting to have a major infrastructure project delivered within their tenure in office. I would be curious to see how the tolling strategy plays out and how the public responds because the exact same thing happened in Johannesburg and motorists simply refused to pay for something they weren’t paying for before – leading to major financial challenges for the national roads agency and their ability to do their work. Nonetheless keep up the good work of spreading the word and encouraging people to look critically at what is happening in the city.

  2. I believe we have misunderstood the objective of this road more because of the level of government’s inability to share Information with its employer, the people.

    In my opinion, the true reason for this overpass which has been shortened by over 20km can be explained by the towers coming up around Kempinsky, that overpass one and only one objective which is to get move people between JKIA and the recently zoned Nairobi Financial District based on the City of London Square mile model.

    As Kenyans we need to continue to find ingenious solutions to deal with traffic in our city without help from the national government as this is a devolved activity thus the responsibility of Gov. Sonko

  3. Your analysis is correct but arises from a faux logic. The sooner analysts and “academics” in Africa reconcile with the fact that no African government is motivated chiefly by public good, the better for everyone. Any Public good that ever came out of a government project was more collateral than intentional especially since the economy got liberalized.

    Infrastructure perspectives in particular are very complex in Africa. We have a youthful population that has grown up in the era of TV and the internet where development is not a state of mind but physical, tangible and to a large extent enormous monstrosities. We fail to publicly think or appreciate in totality these monstrous projects and I would argue we do not posses the capacity to evaluate any of them. A good case is the SGR. At this point in retrospect we all agree it would have been wiser and more cost-effective to upgrade the existing line than construct an entire parallel line to the colonial one only as far as Naivasha! The public however, was more disappointed by the ‘ugly’ looking trains, deemed inferior in appearance to European/Chinese or Japanese bullet trains. The Public couldn’t care less that public funds expended on the SGR project were enough to not only upgrade the entire existing colonial line complete with fancy railway stations from Mombasa to Kisumu but also establish a complete set of light city railway systems in Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru and Kisumu. For the same monies expended on the SGR to nowhere, we would have began addressing the problems of congestion in 4 of Kenya’s biggest cities if the motive behind public projects in this country were public good and need. In the same breadth, the silly partially elevated 26kms of tarmac in Nairobi cost just as much as establishing complete BRTs in Nairobi and Mombasa, cities that badly need efficient mass transit systems. The Public however cares more about the optics of an elevated road in the city similar to what is/was available in perceived developed countries seen through TV and the internet. The greater problem among the Public is how to define development and the consequences of physical development before beginning to address infrastructure project. For people involved in conceiving and executing the current projects, their selfish individual goals are always met, as a matter of fact even surpassed! Of all the problems we face as a people, we are mentally incapacitated by how we see the world and in turn how it shapes our view of what development looks like.

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