Nairobi News


Poor planning, bad transport deny Nairobi high-tech jobs

A poor transport system and disjointed urban development in Nairobi are limiting its ability to serve global markets and create employment, a Nation Newsplex review of recent urbanisation studies shows.

About 80 per cent of all trips in the capital city are made by matatu (minibus), bus or foot, yet the average household can only reach 11 per cent to 20 per cent of formal job opportunities in one hour using these means, according to the 2016 Kenya Urbanisation Review published by the World Bank.

In addition, new buildings which do not border existing ones — or leapfrog development of lands in a manner requiring the extension of public facilities — makes providing the infrastructure that improves productivity in cities more difficult. It means people and companies remain separated from each other, making it difficult to match skills with opportunities.

Such disjointed development makes it difficult for companies that do similar work to gain from locating near each other, a benefit that economists describe as “agglomeration economies”. This is according to another report, titled Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World, which was published this year by the World Bank and the British Government.


As a consequence, Nairobi is limited to producing goods and services that are mostly consumed locally and not in far-flung markets around the world. Specialised manufacturing is particularly affected.

More and more people are moving into Kenya’s cities and the country is urbanising at the rate of more than 4 per cent every year, according to the World Bank. Half the country’s population will be living in cities by 2050, and Nairobi is expected to have six million people by 2030.

But Nairobi’s transport system has not kept pace with the growth.

For cities to be economically viable, efficient transport is vital. Nairobi roads were the world’s fourth-most congested — according to the IBM Commuter Pain survey, which was last published in 2011 — after Mexico City, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The government estimates that traffic jams in Nairobi cost Sh50 million a day in lost productivity.

In Nairobi, nearly half of all commuters (47 per cent) go to work by walking. According to the New Urban Agenda, which was agreed at the Habitat III conference in Quito Ecuador last year and is supposed to guide urban development over the next 20 years, cities are advised to prioritise public transport and non-motorised transport.

The government has worked to improve transportation in Nairobi in two main ways: Building more roads and bypasses, and reforming public transport.


In 2003, soon after taking office, the President Mwai Kibaki-led Narc government prepared a draft National Integrated Transportation strategy. In August 2006, then-Transport Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere, announced that the government would cease licensing public service vehicles with less than 25 seats from March 2007, a limit that included 14-seater matatus. However, the vehicles already licensed would be allowed to wear out by natural attrition.

Vehicle manufacturers, anticipating more business, made plans to manufacture larger vehicles. Sameer Africa created a new production line to deal with the rising demand for tyres.

However, matatu operators, under the Matatu Welfare Association, protested. They demanded that if low-capacity matatus were to go, then the government should buy them from the operators because they represented a significant investment. The lobby also called for a transition period of 10 to 15 years.

In 2007, the 14-seater vehicles were handed a lifeline when the “phase out” order was de-gazetted by Mr Mwakwere, upsetting the plans of manufacturers.

How is public transport around the world run?


According to UN Habitat, user fares are rarely enough to finance public transport. A subsidy from government has always been needed — except in wealthy cities that are dense and compact, where wealthy people prefer to use public transport over personal cars. Driving in such cities is also expensive.

In Hong Kong, parking spaces are so expensive that some people invest in them as a form of real estate, to rent them out.

London, England, has 20 major private bus operators, who bid for the rights to operate buses on certain routes for a limited time. But they are subject to tight controls on details such as the route, number of stops, frequency, vehicle types and quality of service.

In 2016, fares made up only 20 per cent of revenues for Transport for London, the city’s public transport agency, while government grants made up 23 per cent.

On the other hand, the Metrobus of Johannesburg, the sole provider of bus services in the South African city, is wholly owned by the local authority, which provides it with subsidies to top up the revenues received from fares and advertising.

A December 2014 report by the French development agency AFD analysed mass transport in nine cities around the world. It found that government funds were used to subsidise public transport in Paris, London, Cairo, Rabat (Morocco), Lagos (Nigeria), Sao Paolo (Brazil), and Mumbai (India).


Transport systems in Medellin (Colombia), and Mumbai break even with the help of additional revenues from shopping malls and an electricity grid, respectively. Hong Kong, one of the densest, wealthiest cities, runs a profitable, fully privatised public transport system.

In 2009, Kenya’s National Integrated Transport Policy was finally published. It encouraged regulated competition in the mass transport industry. The policy also foresaw an end to the 14-seater matatu.

“The ultimate policy intention is that existing low-capacity PSV vehicles be progressively phased out in the medium term (five to seven years) by encouraging local entrepreneurs (co-operative societies, financial institutions and local investors) to invest in higher-capacity vehicles (buses) with a view to reducing the number of vehicles on the roads while increasing the number of passengers transported,” it stated.

In December 2010, then-Transport Minister Amos Kimunya banned the registration of PSVs carrying fewer than 25 passengers in urban areas from January 2011.

The impact of the ban is clear from the statistics. In 2011, only 451 minibuses and matatus were registered — just 13 per cent of the 3,600 registered in 2010. The decline continued until 2012, when 78 new vehicles were registered, nearly two per cent of the 2008 total of 5,206.

In March 2012, amid the threat of a matatu strike, Mr Kimunya allowed the registration of some 14-seaters by co-operatives (saccos). However, the ban was lifted by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2014 with the head of the National Transport and Safety Agency (NTSA), Mr Francis Meja, noting that not all 14-seaters being registered were meant for the matatu business.


Since then, the number of matatus registered in Kenya has been rising gradually. In 2015, 581 matatus and minibuses were newly registered, a 173 per cent increase over the 213 registered in 2014, and a 644 per cent increase from the 78 in 2012.

Compared to minibuses and matatus, buses and coaches have seen a slower, but steady, increase, with 2009 seeing 1,059 newly registered, the smallest number in recent history. In 2015, the number rose 22 per cent to 2,342. That may be partly because of increased manufacture of larger buses since the ban on 14-seaters.

However, most of the buses in service can only carry a maximum of 51 seated passengers. Articulated buses, which consist of two sections joined together by a flexible pivot, have recently been introduced into service by Truckmart East Africa. They can carry 132 passengers each — 62 seated and 70 standing.

Matatus, of course, are nowhere near the most numerous vehicles type. That crown is held by station wagons. In 2015, there were 54,120 new station wagons registered in Kenya. The number has increased 144 per cent from 24,115 in 2007.

The next biggest category is saloon cars, which dropped from 2007 to 2011 and then increased again in 2015. The third-most popular category was panel vehicles and pick-ups while the fourth was lorries and trucks.

In addition to reforming the matatu sector, the government has built a number of roads in Nairobi to improve connectivity and traffic flow. They include Thika Superhighway, the Northern Bypass, the Eastern Bypass and the Southern Bypass. The Western Bypass is under construction.

However, the increased road construction may not be enough to end traffic jams. Since the Thika Superhighway was opened in 2012, traffic jams have become increasingly common. A 2015 honours thesis in civil engineering from the University of Nairobi by Simon Kiragu found that congestion of traffic on the road was evident two years after it was built.


Between the Muthaiga overpass and the Survey of Kenya underpass, which the study examined, congestion at peak hours in the morning sometimes lasted beyond 9:30am. At peak times, the volume of traffic counted was more than 900 passenger car units (PCUs) per 15-minute interval.

Such local findings seem to match those in other countries.

In 1962, Anthony Downs, an American economist, put forward what he called “the fundamental theory of highway congestion”, in which he stated that constructing more interstate highways resulted in more traffic in metropolitan areas.

In 2011, Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, from the University of Toronto, extended the scope of this finding to include urban roads in general.

In other words, more roads lead to more driving.