By simply declaring that matatus can no longer enter the city center, Governor Sonko is trying to decongest Nairobi’s Central Business District.
While the goal is admirable, the governor’s use of decree instead of planning will not work.
Worse, it will create chaos for many of the 70 per cent of adult citizens who use matatus every day in the city.
Both on the road and parked, cars take up a lot of space and serve usually one or two people per car.
Hence, across the globe, cities are decongesting by supporting public transport and non-motorized alternatives like walking and cycling that are far more space efficient.
In Nairobi where most adult citizens use matatus every day and many, especially the poorest walk, the road space should reflect this fact especially if you want everyone-not just the wealthier minority in cars- to move efficiently around the city.
Interestingly, if you cater for this reality better, driving conditions will actually improve.
The person who owns a car but now decides to walk, ride a bike or take a matatu because it is healthier, cheaper, and convenient to do so, helps keep a car off the road.
Better organized, dedicated and safer pedestrian and public transport infrastructure allow traffic to flow better.
However, if you create more road space by taking space away from public transport modes rather than improving them, then you get induced demand: cars will fill new space leading to congestion again.
Los Angeles is a prime example. It could never build enough highways and it always ended up with more congestion. It is now investing heavily in public and non-motorized transport.
Many Nairobi citizens know this. Even those who live in a household with a car often take matatus and also walk.
This is why they very reasonably suggested to the Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee convened by the last governor to develop more park-and-ride with rapid matatu connectivity into the central city.
In addition, the new NMT Policy passed by the last county assembly also sensibly requires the city to calm traffic in the CBD and build better pedestrian facilities, measures that across the world lead to an uptick in business.
In many places in Nairobi, pedestrians are forced onto roads or have no good way to cross busy streets. The high numbers of tragic crashes in the city attest to this.
In the end then, the governor is correct. Something needs to be done. Take a look at matatu routes using the DigitalMatatus map below:
We know that most routes converge in the city center. This means too many matatus park in the center, and many passengers have to make transfers causing more congestion than necessary.
However, rather than create more chaos by decreeing a change in routes without planning for new ones, building on policy and planning principles, the governor needs to work with the sector and planning community to solve this problem.
For example, the county and NTSA could negotiate with matatu SACCOS to amalgamate some routes to run cross town so there is less stopping in the city center and link these routes to park and ride. Proper route planning is a priority.
The city also needs to design proper, safe bus stops so that matatus can turn off roads and not jam them which does indeed contribute to congestion and pedestrian deaths. Businesses can help since matatus and better pedestrian facilities bring customers.
Rather than rely on the same old actions that create more problems, maybe it is time to work together and build on what we know about planning to fix Nairobi’s problems.
Jacqueline M. Klopp is a research scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Columbia University in New York and a co-founder of the DigitalMatatus project.