The jams of Nairobi: Tales from a congested city!
Traffic jams are a part of life in Nairobi. Sometimes, they pop out of nowhere for no apparent reason. At other times times, they are 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 KES 1000 worth of fuel, and drives for a few days. Hence, at the beginning of every month, the streets 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 worry about the cost of fuel, remain. A first-time visitor arriving on the 31st might 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 shortcuts to dodge the jam. More often than not, though a shortcut is the longest distance between two points, as their secret becomes public knowledge!
Despite a great improvement of the roads in the recent years, the “missing links” still scar Nairobi’s road network. These are main roads which were planned, but never built. Often encroached on by small slum settlements, some have now been cleared of squatters, and provide a dusty, bumpy option for drivers desperately attempting to evade traffic jams.
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 an apparent shortcut, miraculously devoid of jam, only to discover that the “road” suddenly runs into a steep, 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 scarce, as navi maps for Nairobi are yet to become available. That, of course, is no problem for an Android phone with Google Maps! Try not to get arrested for reading maps on your phone while driving, though. Police take a very keen interest in that, or rather in the driver’s wallet! 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 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!