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.
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.
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