A major topic of discussion in Nairobi, Kenya, over the last few months revolves around the proposed relocation of paratransit vehicles (known as matatus in Kenya and minibus taxis in parts of the continent) to the fringes of the Central Business District (CBD).
‘Nairobi Metropolitan Services’ (NMS), the newly formed authority that has taken over some of the key functions of the Nairobi City County government, is developing new termini on the outskirts of the greater CBD in a bid to reduce congestion within the inner city. This received mixed reactions with some praising NMS for finally taking some ‘action’ on the sector while others insist that such short term measures will not do enough to alleviate traffic congestion in the city.
Upon closer analysis and after engaging different stakeholders, it is clear that there are pros and cons associated with the proposed relocation. As is customary with urban transport and mobility, the dynamics of the sector require keen analysis from a systems perspective; this will facilitate a proper and holistic perception of the metropolitan strategy (metropolitan here meaning the greater urban and peri-urban forces in place) while examining each transport unit and corridor in conjunction with its own pre-determining factors.
Some benefits of the proposed move include those likely to be experienced on inner city streets that have degenerated into parking yards and termini following the collapse of the initial cyclic public transport routes. Streets are seen to be clear of revving vehicles which will not only help with better air quality but also promote a pedestrian friendly environment due to extra space. This is expected to culminate in more opportunities for business foot flow. A recent study in some downtown streets indicated that shop owners along the streets where buses and matatus park install fans due to the copious amounts of vehicular fumes bombarding them while vehicles are left on ‘revving’ as the crew track down customers. The downtown area has also recorded the highest noise pollution DCBs due to blaring horns, loud music and incessant shouting.
Without bus and matatu on-street parking, there is hope that the NMS can continue with their pedestrianization campaign and replace a lot of the parking with more and badly- needed pedestrian space. This will significantly improve the current worrying state of poor air quality in the CBD. It will also discourage further private car use in the CBD which remains the main cause of congestion in the city. Studies (as shown in the time series image) show that even temporary pedestrianization of streets leads to significant improvement in air quality.
Another advantage from the NMS move will be the time and fuel savings gained by circumventing the endless amounts of time spent accessing their current termini in the CBD. This normally involves going through roundabouts, T-junctions or right-turns at the direction of traffic police and vehicles queuing to access the termini (all this while commuters are seated inside as there are very few drop-off points in the CBD). The same scenario recurs on return trips out of the CBD. Many of Nairobi’s junctions and roundabouts are managed manually (not using automated traffic lights) and studies show that up to 20-30 minutes per trip can be lost at these nodes.
The new termini also feature improved facilities for both workers and commuters. Following recommendations by professionals including the Socially Just Public Transport Working Group, the new termini will be the first to incorporate key facilities for vulnerable or special needs groups. These include washrooms for PWDS, baby changing stations for mothers, a public clinic, resting area for crew, a trading area and a police post. Public transport workers needs and requirements are rarely considered and they have been one of the most ignored labour groups in Sub -Saharan African cities. It is expected that this will become prevalent in future as a few other counties in Kenya have also adopted similar recommendations.
Relocating the existing Railways bus-stage also creates room for improved public space at the historic railway station. The station gave birth to the city slightly over a century ago and also boasts several historically gazetted buildings in its precincts. Additionally, in 2020, Kenya Railways Corporation increased their rolling stock and re-launched the commuter rail service. A highly attractive and user-centred railway station environment will be pivotal in attracting passengers to the Central Station to increase the use of city rail travel. The relaunched rail system also has a connector bus that offers additional last mile journeys by bus from the central railway station in the CBD to different employment centres. This multi-modal approach towards public transport makes headway in the improvement of mobility within the city as the authorities work on additional long term strategies.
However, the system does pose a number of questions and challenges.
It is not the first time that paratransit vehicles have been banned from the CBD. In fact, at present, following a directive that banned them from accessing the core CBD in the 90s, the majority operate from the peripheral areas of the CBD. At the time the CBD was reserved for high capacity buses run by the Kenya Bus Services. As a monocentric city, Nairobi’s CBD acts as an interchange point for people using public transport. In past years, inter-city bus services operated from East to West cutting through the CBD while peri-urban routes originated within the CBD but made cyclic journeys through peri-urban areas. With the growth of paratransit, this system collapsed due to institutional structures within the sector as well as due to lack of a proper urban transport policy. Examples of challenges include alleged ownership and licensing of routes, crew target systems, peak hour preference and vehicular capacity regulations among others.
This monocentric nature of the city also requires adequate interconnectivity if single node routes are retained. If this is the case, the resulting gap in interconnectivity may force users to travel a long distance between termini. The distance from the proposed Green Park terminus to Desai Road, for example, is 2.8 Km – a 35 minute walk for an able bodied person. The route also involves a highway and river crossing which currently comprise very poor NMT infrastructure The motorcycle taxi (known locally as boda-boda) sector is inevitably bound to take advantage of the substantial distances between termini and any emerging security concerns to develop their own ecosystem between the termini.
In most low income cities, informal trade is very popular at termini due to the convenience and low pricing of goods. As is common in all LIC urban areas, an influx of non-integrated small scale traders at the termini may lead to battles between council askaris and traders while customers are caught in between.
The city has indicated that it intends to partner with the sector to introduce a cyclic bus from the new Ngara Terminus to Kenyatta National Hospital that will ease movement for users and link the new PSV termini. It is not yet clear whether a dedicated lane for faster movement is planned for the buses. A dedicated lane would bring a lot of convenience to the user and increase public transport efficiency. The cost implication on the user is not yet clear.
Owing to the high volume transport on some corridors, a lot of questions remain as to whether ‘relocation’ will translate into improved access and mobility for users. While many will recognize the importance of moving up-country bound vehicles out of the CBD (from Accra Road ‘Stage’ to Desai Road and Park Road), it is still unclear if the rest of the Thika Road intra-city vehicles will still terminate along Ronald Ngala, Tom Mboya and other adjacent streets (these are among the two streets afflicted by the worst air pollution in the City).
The location of the new termini also raises safety and security concerns, especially in the evenings. These areas in the city’s outskirts are known to harbour petty criminals and muggers and if no safety precautions are implemented, cases will likely increase.
The above are a few of the advantages and disadvantages that may emerge from the relocation of public transport vehicles from the CBD.
An ‘ad-hoc’ process must be avoided as previous attempts have failed. Tackling one corridor at a time can provide an opportunity for drawing lessons that can be utilised to improve on subsequent projects.
In the long term, emphasis on cyclic routes will be imperative, as well as the development of a polycentric land use system that spreads movement rather than centrifying it. This was initially proposed in the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Plan (NIUPLAN) which also allows for integrative, comprehensive and collaborative implementation of institutional processes in the city. Four years after the launch of the plan, however, the development control guidelines are not yet prepared and the plan is yet to be implemented. This delay calls into question how much importance is being given to long term planning and visioning rather than ‘muddling through’ their problems. On the bright side, The Nairobi Metropolitan Transport Authority (NAMATA) has also embarked on developing Line 2 BRT along Thika Road, a development which some operators in the matatu sector have hailed due to their inclusion and participation in the process and management.
Urban governance in cities and towns is critical in the 21st Century and will require participative, accountable and transparent long term planning and management. A working framework involving county governments and authorities mandated by national governments and that prioritises planning is essential. This may very well be just the legacy NMS needs to leave for Nairobians.