City streets play a major function in urban life and economy. Dynamic Streets, like those within Central Business District areas that serve multiple users can at times be said to be the life of a city. 

Nairobi Tom Mboya Street is a relevant example of this type of multi user street . Located at the southern border of the inner and outer CBD, it is busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Lined by tall buildings comprising of shops, offices, small stalls, fast food stores, hotels/lodgings, nightclubs and major supermarkets, it serves several societal groups both day and night. It is also a major transit street and is always has a congested mix of people, vehicles and hawkers. As matatus (public service vehicles) are not allowed into the inner CBD, over 20 routes have their pick-up and drop off points along this road. This is in spite of it lacking any well designed and designated bus-stops. Several other PSVs use the adjacent streets as their drop-off and pick-up points. For many years it was viewed as a dangerous street with many street kids, pickpockets and other social delinquents.

A street  such as Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi can benefit from active user oriented re-design and development aimed at meeting the needs of the people.

Changes can be incorporated on the street to bring about a balance between user experience and service delivery or access. These revolve around the main users of the street prioritizing the citizen who wants to access the various services:  shops, PSVs and adjacent streets. Easy exit for fire trucks from the fire station should also be a major consideration.

A variety of changes that can be implemented include widening of pedestrian spaces as well as creating adequate boarding and drop-off points for buses. This will mean reduction of personal vehicle parking spaces and could be contested by taxi drivers who are the biggest users of parking space. The current 5 metre pavements are not wide enough for the thousands of people who use this street daily.  Congestion worsens during rush hour when numerous informal traders/hawkers “invade “the street to sell their wares to impulse buyers on their way home.

Better pedestrian access to bus stops is also important. One interesting feature on the street is the large number of matatu termini on adjacent streets yet there is  hardly any safe way of crossing the road. Slightly raised zebra crossings as a means of traffic calming on several parts of the road (see marks in yellow on map) can make crossing the road safer for pedestrians.

Tom Mboya Hybrid

Red: Tom Mboya Street, Green: Roads also used as PSV Termini, Yellow: Points where pedestrians tend to cross
Purple – Moi Avenue Black: access roads to Tom Mboya Street

A street as busy as Tom Mboya needs clear demarcation of transit points like bus stops or boarding points. Although many have proposed that Nairobi develops a system where public transit vehicles pass through the city centre rather than load and unload passengers (using the city centre as their parking area) that is outside the ambit of this brief.

Improved pedestrian access routes can work well from the adjacent inner CBD and may also mean increasing pavements, creating walkways and increased lighting along connecting roads plus. Pedestrianization and lighting of the adjacent Tom Mboya statue area has created one of the most open and walkable spaces in Nairobi.

To a large extent a walk along Tom Mboya street constitutes an apt summary of current hustle and bustle of the City of Nairobi. Images from years back depict a quiet street with neat and orderly parking and less activity. However with a city growing from a population of 800,000 in 1979 to 4,000,0000 currently, one would not expect the same dynamics along the city streets.

Street Users

New York City recently carried out some streetscape changes on some of their busiest streets to make them more citizen friendly. These involved dramatic make-overs with an emphasis on protection of pedestrians. Although this may not necessarily be directly compared to Nairobi Tom Mboya Street, ideas can always be shared from a user-study perspective.

The main users of a city are the citizens. It is therefore important that the citizens enjoy priority in the use of streets and the ability to  safely, conveniently and adequately access services along any street in spite of the several roles that a street may play. This is what essentially defines “Complete Streets.  Improved user experience will attract more people to the street and  likely moderate those who are already using the street thereby further drawing them to the shops and businesses along the street.

What forms of re-design can be adopted in order to meet the needs of all the users in an equitable manner, without depriving economic or social justice to stakeholders while creating an atmosphere of ownership and belief?

Are you a user of busy multi-use downtown streets? What changes do you think would make such streets user friendly?

Data Linked to Sources. Images by Constant Cap and Web sources


3 thoughts on “Nairobis Tom Mboya Street: User Friendly or Not?

  1. Thank you Cap for getting this discussion started, in my few one-on-one discussion with friends it seems everyone wants spaces that are user friendly but we remain quite ‘silent’ and not agitated when motorists push us from the road everyday. It has become a norm to accept harsh words from motorists when we slowly cross the roads. I would wish to go down along this thought process but. . .to respond to my good friend’s question on the design needs for Tom Mboya street. I would say it just about time we put on our design lenses and began having our streets shaped up. We need to reclaim the current car spaces for pedestrians; redesign (reduce) or remove the parking spaces along the street; regulate the commuter (vehicle) bus stops/traffic (at what scale do we what our intervention to go?) and lastly, what about some trees? some shades?

    Did I mention by best street in the city is Mama Ngina, just a stone throw away from Tom Mboya.

  2. Great piece. I agree the way forward is to focus on a pedestrian oriented stret while maintaining a balance with the factors to the right- matatus, hawkers, shops.
    An important factor is INFORMALITY- often confused for chaos. All systems along the street are based on the informal nature of operation. Matatus don’t have strictly designated pick up stops or timing, Hawkers pop in and out at their pleasure, even the shops and stalls tend to spill their wares onto the street unrestricted.
    Implementing the orderly and almost formal proposals that you make would go against the grain and very informal nature of the street. For instance, widening the pedestrian walkway could lead to more hawkers invading the widened part.
    Any proposals must address the issues of an extra legal system such as that which runs the street. For instance, can hawkers be restricted to a given part of the street and at specific times?
    Interested readers can look up Gichora Githaiga’s B. Arch 2013/14 undergrad thesis on Tom Mboya St. Informality from the University of Nairobi’s online thesis bank.

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