Jerom Theunissen Photography


September 24-30

City in Context

In recent decades, the population of Nairobi has grownrapidly and the population is currently at 4 million people, with over 6.5 millionin the greater Nairobi Metropolitan area. This metropolitan area controls over50% of Kenya’s GDP. The city’s rapid urbanization has been accompanied by poorconstruction standards and the emergence of slums, inadequate water supply,poor drainage and sanitation, poor road conditions, and severe traffic jams. Tosolve the transport problems of the Nairobi Metropolitan area (NMA), the NairobiMetropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA) was recommended by the “IntegratedNational Transport Policy” of 2012. After five years of deliberation, NaMATAwas established in 2017 to oversee the delivery of an integrated, efficient,effective and sustainable public transport system within the NairobiMetropolitan Area(NMA).

According to NaMATA, over $1billion is lost annually due to congestion. Other transport problems and challengesin Nairobi’s metropolitan area include inadequate integration of land use planningand transport planning, inefficient and inadequate public transport to meet therising demand, high costs of transport compared to levels of income in theregion, uncoordinated and unsynchronized governance by the various bodiesconcerned with transport, inadequate development of non-motorizedinfrastructure network, poor safety and high incidence of motor trafficaccidents, and increased pollution and deterioration of the urban environment.

In terms of modal split, 46percent of trips use public transport while 39 percent of trips are made onfoot. Only 13 percent of trips are made by private vehicle, which is surprisinggiven the severity of traffic jams. For effective utilization of road space,NaMATA reckons that much more focus should be put on public transport andnon-motorized trips, which account for over 80% of road users. Proposedprojects include developing a mass rapid transport system which will include BusRapid Transit (see map below), for which $1 billion is being invested under thecounty master plan. Deployment of an integrated traffic management stem is alsobeing pursued to reduce road accidents and to optimize traffic flow.

Much needs to be done toovercome the high cost of congestion in the city. In the absence of coordinatedgovernment action in the realm of public transportation and payment methods, Nairobihas proven to be a fertile ground for major ride-hailing and carpooling firms topilot quick-trip options. The private minibus sector (Matatu’s) have benefitedfrom more organization and digitization programs like Digital Matatu, which addressesthe challenge of making complex bus routes available on trip planning applications. 

The challenges Nairobi facesunderscore the need to expand public transport and NMT infrastructure, develop newmobility models, and ensure integrated transport governance to ensure thatNairobi embodies the nickname “Green City in the Sun” and becomes a beacon forsustainable mobility in Africa.

Map Kibera – Using Data to Inform Slum Development

On the first day of my visit to Nairobi,I visited one of the largest slums in Africa, called Kibera. The sprawlinginformal settlement gets its name from Nubian roots, meaning “forest.” The settlementsits on unused government land, with the government allowing squatters to buildstructures. If new residents wish to settle on the land, they must work withcartels that serve as coordinators between local government precincts and thenew residents. Over time, population of the settlement swelled, and today housesbetween 400,000 and 1 million residents.

Uncertainty and a lack of data concerningthe settlement prompted an organization called Map Kibera to form. Kibera was ablank spot on the map in 2009. In the eyes of the government, the slum essentially didn’texist. Without any kind of map detailing the spatial layout of the settlement, residentshad little agency and data to appeal to local government for more resources. In2009, Map Kibera was formed to tackle this issue by empowering citizens tocollect data and publish news reports to map information about themselves andtheir community. Using OpenStreetMap, residents took ownership of the project usinglocal knowledge and GPS devices to plot roads, buildings, and services in theKibera slum.

When I arrived in Kibera, I met withjournalist and program coordinator Joshua Ogure. He has been working with MapKibera to create agency for his fellow residents via journalism and mappingprojects. Joshua told me that while the organization initially began with abasic map of Kibera, the true potential of the organization was realized when it’sprojects helped build community. The project shifted focus to create a varietyof services which would leave a lasting impact on Kibera’s daily life. Forexample, another map was created specifically to increase safety for women andgirls. Locals recorded which areas were dangerous, which were safe, and wherethere were no streetlights at night. Since then, the map has been used tostrategically plan placement of streetlights and police posts. This and otherprojects have informed residents of the resources available in their communityand can use the maps as an advocacy tool.

A recent article Joshua wrote concerneda road reserve project that cuts Kibera in two. The new road is being justifiedby government officials as a means to reduce traffic in the city center byallowing through traffic to bypass the city’s main roads. I took interest in thisproject given the intersection between community development and transport. Inthis case, road reserves are being used to divide a thriving community, echoingsimilar highway construction in the United States back in the 1950s.

Through the work of Map Kibera, Joshua’spassion for citizen journalism and mapping has allowed him to make his fellowresidents aware of the happenings in the community. He keenly enjoys theopportunity to hear Kibera residents speak for themselves on current events andissues. Much of his work is with the organizations Voice of Kibera and KiberaNews Network. Through these media, residents of Kibera are better informed andable to voice their concerns to political leadership in Nairobi.

Matatus and Boda Bodas – Informal Transit in Nairobi

One of the main forms of transport in Nairobi is the matatu—or privately owned shared bus. About 70percent of the capital’s 1.3 million commuters use a matatu at some point everymonth for their commute. Another form of transport isthe boda boda – a motorcycle ride on which one sits om the back while thedrives whizzes you by standstill traffic. These two modes are dominant in therealm of transport in Nairobi. For the vast majority of Nairobi there is no formalizedpublic transport—four aging commuter train lines run twice in the morning andonce or twice in the evening, but their stops are few and far between and theircapacity limited.

The private matatu is the only shared means of transportation and—withoutmassive investment—the only realistic way of moving its citizens around withoutfurther congesting the city. And yet, they’re widely regarded as a necessaryevil rather than an efficiency. Much of the enforcement falls on the drivers of the matatus. Thesedrivers work hard but are not assured of steady employment and lack benefits, regularsalary, or daily earnings. As a result of these pressures, drives often employcutthroat measures such as doubling fares when it rains, or by breaking trafficlaws by traveling over the speed limit and driving in highway medians or acrosssidewalks to complete more trips. Owners of the buses charge drivers a fixedamount per day, the driver and conductor—or “tout”—collect money frompassengers and split the profit after bribes are paid, gas is bought, and theowner is compensated.

As mentioned before, the transportationministry has tried to regulate the matatu industry, passing laws that mandatethe use of electronic speed limiters on the buses, fixed routes, and even banson their use in the city center. Meanwhile, owners are rarely concerned howdrivers get their money as long as they get it. By law, all owners of matatuson the roads of Nairobi are members of a Savings and Credit CooperativeOrganizations (SACCO) which controls one or more routes. The SACCOs have adubious reputation, often acting as cartels and aligning themselves withmembers of Kenyan parliament or ministers for protection. When faced with moreregulation and competition from a formalized public transport network, drivers andSACCOs are sure to be the first in line to voice their opposition.

This makesdeveloping an integrated public transport system in Nairobi all the moredifficult. Any plans should seek to include informal forms of transportation asvital players to bring commuters to public transport stations. Whatever theplan may be, the future of transportation in Nairobi looks to be a delicatebalancing act. How it’ll move forward without abandoning or angering matatu andboda-boda workers remains an open question.

A long commute home is made better with friends on a matatu!

Visit to UN Habitat – Sustainable Transport in East AfricanCities

Another reason to visit Nairobi was to hold meetings withone of the world’s most important bodies in the realm of urban planning: UNHabitat. The organization was one of the key drivers behind the development ofthe 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a plan of action for “people, planet,and prosperity.” UN-Habitat has been designated as custodian agency in 8indicators, including within the realm of sustainable urban transport.

UN Habitat is one of the main advocates for developing anintegrated mass transit system in Nairobi. Along with the Institution forTransportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Habitat prepared a service planfor a pilot BRT corridor according to international best practice in BRTservice planning. Initial efforts to develop operational plans for a BRTservice in Nairobi were hampered by the lack of information on travel patternsand demands for people. Based on the work done by the aforementioned DigitalMatatu project, maps of informal public transit routes (Matatu’s) were introduced.These maps were combined with rapid surveys of minibus ridership patters,resulting in a service plan for the pilot BRT corridor.

The plan recommends the best scenario that attracts the mostpassengers, minimizes land acquisition, reduces the capital costs needed fortransfer stations and minimizes travel time for passengers. During thepreparatory phase of the BRT project in Nairobi, an innovative, people-centeredmethodology of transport planning was developed: moving people first, not cars.This input has catalyzed further thinking in government and assisted to facilitatedialogue surrounding the development of mass transit systems in Nairobi.

In addition to work done in the realm of public transport, UNHabitat and ITDP have produced a guide on designing for safe, accessible, andcomfortable streets for walking and cycling in African cities. Find the pdf tothe guide here.

While I visited Habitat, I spoke with Juma Assiago, a socialscientist and expert on Urban Safety. He has been working on Habitat’s SaferCities Programme since 1999 to assist governments and other city stakeholdersto build competency at the city level to address urban insecurity and to adoptcrime prevention policies in developing countries. Our conversation focused onthe role of safety in urban transport systems in Nairobi and beyond.

This video details the state of public transport in Nairobi and the work of UN-Habitat.

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