The jams of Nairobi: Tales from a congested city!

Traffic jams are a part of life in Nairobi. At times, they pop out of nowhere for no apparent reason, while at other times times, they are very predictable.

Wisdom dictates when to avoid driving at all costs: At the beginning of month, when people have just been paid their salaries, every Tom, Dick and Harry puts a KSh 1000 worth of fuel, and takes the car that is otherwise parked. That’s why, at the beginning of the month, the streets of Nairobi are crowded with small cars, and drivers with dubious traffic skills. As the end of the month gets closer, only the big cars, driven by those who don’t need to worry about affording the fuel, remain. A first-time visitor arriving on the 31st can be forgiven for believing that every Nairobian drives an SUV.

Special occasion days are highly susceptible to jams, and if it rains heavily, brace yourself for an average speed om 1 km/h, while praying you won’t run out of fuel!

The well-informed driver may know some smart shortcuts to dodge the jam, but more often than not, a shortcut is the longest distance between two points, as too many of the other drivers are equally well-informed!

Despite a significant improvement of the roads network in the recent years, under Kibaki’s presidency, the “missing links” still scar Nairobi’s road network. These are main roads that were planned, but never built. Often encroached on by small slum settlements, a few ones have been cleared of squatters, and now provide a dusty, bumpy alternative for drivers desperately attempting to evade the jams on the main roads.

Every other such “missing link”, it seems, is unfinished due to the gazillion small rivers that run through Nairobi. Looking at your GPS map, you may see a road that connects 2 or more main roads, and that miraculously is devoid of jam, only to discover that the “road” suddenly runs into a steep dip, and then disappears into an undrivable nature trail crossing a river. So dear Nairobi City Council, and dear Kenya Urban Roads Authority: Can you please build a few more bridges, dammit?

GPS navigation systems are yet to get widespread, as navi maps for Nairobi are yet to be made avilable. That, of course, is no problem for anyone with an Android phone that has Google Maps! Try not getting arrested for reading maps on your phone while driving, though, as police take a very keen interest in such transgressions! Tinted car windows are highly recommended!

Yesterday being Valentines Day, with heavy rains descending on the city, the circumstances were right for the perfect jam! My girlfriend, Beatrice, was getting home from work early. As the skies unleashed their torrents on Nairobi, she attempted to cut the jam by doing one of the infamous “shortcuts”, through South C. Big mistake! 5 hours later, skipping any romantic prelude to the dinner, a starving couple was rushing to the restaurant, where we were ridiculously late for our booking. It was 11, so the kitchen was just about to close, but only just! Better late than never, and for sure, we were the last guests to get served! 🙂

So is a Nairobi without jams even conceivable? A lot has happened with the roads under President Kibaki. The only problem is that so much more still needs to be done! Some very promising projects are going on, with the Japanese funding the Western Ring Road (planned in 1963!), and the EU funding the Northern part of it, it may soon be possible to drive from Ngong Road to Ngara without encountering a roundabout. With other ongoing projects, such as Thika Road being upgraded to a 12-lane superhighway, Ngong Road and Langata Road being upgraded to dual carriage, and the Northern, Eastern and Southern Bypasses diverting transit traffic away from the city, things are likely to ease up a bit. But how much does that help, when the number of vehicles keeps rising exponentially?

Eventually, what Nairobi needs is a proper high-speed, high capacity mass transit system that can make it possible, and even comfortable for people to leave their cars at home. Until then, brace for more endless hours in the jam!