Nairobi, Kenya: No BRT due to Poor Planning?

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary (Minister) for Transport recently stated that a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) would not be possible in the City of Nairobi. In his statement, according to press reports, he mentioned that the city lacked space for a BRT due to poor planning and added that to ease congestion, a commuter rail and expanded roads would be the alternative.

 Kenyatta Avenue

The CS’s statement could not have come at a worse time when Nairobi is experiencing massive traffic jams, increased congestion and environmental decay (evidenced by studies on the city’s air quality).

Several studies carried out in the past as well as ongoing ones  seek to, or have proposed, an efficient mass rapid transport system for the City of Nairobi. Many have been done by government ministries or authorities in conjunction with various global partners.

The recently launched Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan advocated for several recommendations concerning Rapid Transit. Making use of some of the previous independent studies, it proposes a variety of options such as BRT, Light Rail and MetroRail along various channels. The plan recognized previous studies that had identified 6 BRT Corridors and three metro corridors.

The City of Nairobi has been faced with various challenges related  to mobility, transportation and accessibility. The City once had an efficient but foreign owned bus service that ran by the minute and covered most city estates. Owing to the lack of an efficient public transport expansion policy or framework, the bus system was soon outdone by a state promoted para-transit system (known as matatus) that filled in the gap.

Nairobi currently runs a commuter rail system that transports up to 25,000 passengers daily. Kenya Railways has in the past planned on expanding the system with a goal of transporting up to 143,000 people per day. The system in operation was built based on geographical terrain rather than land use, thereby limiting its penetration to most neighbourhoods as land use patterns in the city have tended to follow road channels and not rail.

Commuter Rail in Nairobi

The transportation needs of a city have to be analyzed taking into account social, cultural, economic, environmental and political needs. This means that there is no ‘ultimate’ solution to traffic, transportation, mobility and subsequently, accessibility requirements.

It is important that every area of the city is studied comprehensively and where possible, changes made in order to first reduce the need for traveling long distances. This includes ensuring that certain services like homes, schools and health centres are located within close range. This process, which requires a multi-sectoral approach, can also be extended to workplaces and other commercial land uses.     

Along with reducing the need for travel where possible, efficient and less energy consuming means of mobility ought to be considered. These may include increasing walkability and other NMT facilities in the city. Already over 50% of Nairobians walk due to lack of alternatives and this proportion can be increased with the development of proper walking facilities and network within a 10 Km radius of the CBD.

After exploring and implementing these processes, authorities ought to work on how to improve public transport systems within the city. In this regard, rather than undertaking massive and expensive feasibility studies, comprehensive alternative analyses based on each route/channel can be taken. Taking into account current circumstances and future developments, the best options that ensure an inter-modal and integrated public transport system should be adopted.

Citizens have different needs and different transportation preferences. The majority  prefer a system that ensures last mile connectivity. Others prefer cheaper systems while a good number are willing to pay for efficiency and timeliness. All of these diverse needs can be integrated into the system. Equitable transport means should be put into place that do not favour some groups  over others. Citizens should be able to chose between using a bus, using a train, using a matatu, driving themselves or using NMT.

For the city of Nairobi, this would mean the development of a public transit system that takes into consideration the presence of a vibrant informal transport system, a continual increase in the popularity of private vehicles as well as a constantly transforming urban morphology.

As a result, the suggestion that the city is not well planned enough for a BRT is uncalled for. A vibrant and growing city always has room for innovative ideas and diversity. None of the leading cities in the developing world that have adopted mass rapid transit systems have done so amidst a perfect urban structure. Good cities portray diversity, vibrancy and constant adoption of the ever changing circumstances.

A study of the Janmag BRT system in Ahmedabad (population of 6 million people and over 2.2 million registered vehicles) as well as the Lagos BRT provide some illustration of this. The City of Bogota developed its BRT as the ultimate solution for its traffic problems after rejecting a proposal made by ‘foreign experts’ to construct a multi level freeway’. Curitiba, on the other hand, the mother of the BRT system, developed the BRT system as the authorities analyzed the efficiency and financial viability against a proposed a light rail system that had initially been proposed. How does one therefore conclude, that a BRT cannot work and that instead a Rail System would be an ultimate solution?  

In addition, stating that the only solution to get rid of congestion is to expand roads and construct a rail system is failing to take into account factors like the constantly increasing number of motor vehicles (thus only a short term solution) and the necessity of financing and subsidizing the rail transportation costs. Tradition has shown that increased incomes in cities tend to have a direct relationship with increased motorization.

Developing an urban transport system is not a one-off project that identifies a problem and solves them immediately. Cities are diverse living environments that are affected by several factors and developments. Consequently, transportation planning is a continuous process requiring constant foresight to prepare a city to meet demographic, technological, environmental or other challenges. Planning is the process of deciding what to do and how to do it – do not blame planning, start planning!

Does the development of a rail system necessarily discourage the use of personal vehicles? If planning is the process of deciding what to do and how to do it, should we always blame planning or should we start planning?

Images by Constant Cap; Data and Videos linked to sources


Land use management in Nairobi, Kenya is key to reducing congestion.

Statue of Kenya's founding President at the heart of Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi has a population of 3.5 million and a density of 4,850 people/Km2. This is low when compared to Lagos with 11 million people (18,500p/Km2) or Bogota with 7 million (13,500p/Km2). Estimates show that by 2025 there will be about 5.8 million people living in the city. Nairobi has to plan towards sustaining such a population.

Mobility will be as crucial for this 5.8 million as it is today. Perennial traffic jams have led to a shift in peak hours over the last ten years and Nairobi is ranked by some as the 4th most congested city in the world.

Nairobi’s structure, like in Hoyts Sector theory and Burgess’ concentric model, has a strong Central Business District (CBD) where most stores, government offices and businesses are located. It also has a mix of both concentric circles and growing sectors moving away from the CBD with an industrial zone and various residential areas. The City also sprawls along the major highways that eventually merge at the CBD. Thus, traffic congestion is at its worst on the roads leading to the CBD or extended CBD area.

Attempts at reducing this congestion via government and donor funded road construction have not helped as vehicle numbers increase and points of origin and destination remain the same. The NUIPLAN  proposes a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) similar to that in Bogota and Ahmadabad and there is a recent drive towards the construction of a commuter Rail system. BRT secluded bus ways can reduce the attraction of personal car use while commuter rails reduce road dependency.

Commuters wait to board a train in Nairobi, Kenya

However, these are not ultimate solutions. BRTs function well developing countries on routes carrying up to 30,000 per hour after which Rail options can be considered. (Bogota’s overstretched BRT serves as a good example). Rail systems on the other hand, require high ridership’s and need subsidies for sustenance. Some cities, like Paris, sustain them through a ‘commuter tax’.

But what happens beyond mass transit?

The vision of Nairobi 50 or 100 years from now will be based on the decisions made today. Do we want a city where people have access to a variety of means of mobility, or one with 4 million cars trying to move around (estimated ratio of 0.7 cars per person)? Will the CBD and environs remain as the heart of business and human activity that everyone has to access?

Mombasa Road in Nairobi, KenyaThis brings into focus the importance of land use management. The city needs to develop such that the points of origin and destination need not be far apart. Where the CBD is not the primary destination in the morning and everyone’s exit point during peak evening hours. Can business parks, quality schools and residential areas be located near each other reducing travel distances? Can there be more emphasis on densification along proposed mass transit lines while making maximum use of land on, above and below the ground?

Mixed Use Development can reduce the need for highways, long travel distances and curtail the sprawling city.

Long term land use management in the city is a key means of reducing congestion. This goes beyond engineering solutions like road construction and mobility infrastructure. Re-planning the city in a manner that brings peoples’ points of origin and destination closer thus reducing the need for long travel times will go a long way towards ‘decongesting’ a city.

How well can land use management be used to decongest the city roads based on the current zones? What other long term considerations can be used to develop a more sustainable city?