Why Sonko’s city de­con­ges­tion ‘plan’ is a com­plete non-starter

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - OPINION -

Gover­nor Mike Sonko is a joke gone too far. You don’t run a city like Nairobi through gim­micks. Let’s first ed­u­cate the gover­nor: Cities the world over give pri­or­ity to com­muter ve­hi­cles as op­posed to pri­vate cars. This is for a rea­son.

Ease of com­muter flow is what makes big cities work. It im­proves eco­nomic ef­fi­ciency and many other things.

One head­line asked: Did Sonko ban the wrong ve­hi­cles (from the city cen­tre)? That’s an em­phatic yes. Traf­fic jams are caused by the un­con­trolled move­ment of pri­vate cars, less so by PSVS. We all saw that in Nairobi on Mon­day. We saw it again when mata­tus went off the roads when the Michuki Rules were re­cently be­ing rein­tro­duced. The city grid­lock was worse than ever.

There is a mid­dle-class and up­per-class con­ceit that all the trans­port woes of the city are caused by PSVS. We want to en­joy a stress-free drive into a matatu-free CBD as we leisurely lis­ten to Luther Van­dross croon­ing from the car stereo. Who cares what Wan­jiku is go­ing through to ac­cess the CBD?

Many peo­ple have this em­bed­ded mind­set of mata­tus be­ing the prob­lem. More so the hon­chos of govern­ment like Sonko. Believe you me, they were all quite thrilled with the idea of kick­ing out mata­tus from the CBD. These guys reckon mata­tus must be dealt with puni­tively, hence all the re­peated “bans” and “crack­downs” and what have you. PSVS live in an en­vi­ron­ment of con­stant war­fare with the au­thor­i­ties.

The bad news for of­fi­cial­dom is that mata­tus are go­ing nowhere — not yet. Not un­less you want a to­tal shut­down of Nairobi. And not un­til you of­fer al­ter­na­tives.

Make no mis­take, Wan­jiku saw through per­fectly well the poor-ver­sus-well-to-do class bias in the matatu CBD ban.

It was pre­pos­ter­ous of Sonko to throw out the PSVS while si­mul­ta­ne­ously push­ing for the low­er­ing of park­ing fees for pri­vate cars. How ut­terly bone­headed can one get? And such a crazy de­ci­sion can be taken when Wan­jiku is ex­pected to trek from the matatu dropoff points into the city cen­tre, per­haps strad­dling a child and with lug­gage on her back? What if it rained?

Sonko then had the cheek to go be­fore the Se­nate — on the same Mon­day the com­muter masses were strug­gling to cope — and sug­gest Nairobi res­i­dents needed the ex­er­cise be­cause they don’t go to the gym. Is this guy OK? Irony of ironies, those same ha­rassed com­mon­ers Sonko was in­sult­ing had voted for him to a man.

Now that Sonko’s de­con­ges­tion plan has flopped, we are yet again re­minded of what we all knew: that the gover­nor is a phoney who hawks snake oil to city res­i­dents the same way he does with his rag­tag out­fit called Sonko Res­cue Team. His de­con­ges­tion plan was no plan. It was as pea-brained as those ado­les­cent record­ings he makes of pri­vate callers, which he posts on so­cial me­dia. A proper de­con­ges­tion plan should be done pro­gres­sively, with a longterm per­spec­tive. The first thing to re­mem­ber is that a mass tran­sit sys­tem is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial for any big city. Rich cities have sub­ways (or met­ros or tubes). Others have light rail (fast trams) and BRT (bus rapid tran­sit). Nairobi is stuck with its hum­ble mata­tus. As traf­fic con­ges­tion gets worse, time has come to up­grade.

Nairobi’s im­me­di­ate cir­cum­stances re­quire we first op­er­a­tionalise BRT. Sooner or later we must then lay out the in­fra­struc­ture for a light rail sys­tem. I don’t know what be­came of the BRT pro­posal. All I see is a crim­son line painted along a stretch of Thika high­way ap­proach­ing Nairobi that marks what should be a ded­i­cated BRT lane.

The key is to have a re­li­able mass tran­sit sys­tem to get com­muters into and out of the CBD ef­fi­ciently, and re­move the ma­jor­ity of pri­vate ve­hi­cles from the city cen­tre. The Kenya Rail­ways peri-ur­ban com­muter trains are often men­tioned as the way out. I dis­agree. The com­muter vol­ume they han­dle is a drop in the bucket. Their present route cov­er­age is lim­ited and the trains are few. Worse, these Kenya Rail­ways trains that op­er­ate from Kikuyu, Dan­dora and Ruiru are dirty and over­crowded. The newer 30-minute Syoki­mau line is much more com­fort­able and cleaner. Mid­dle class types liv­ing in that neigh­bour­hood as well as Athi River and Kiten­gela are fine with it. It helps that there is am­ple park­ing pro­vided at the Syoki­mau sta­tion.

Let’s close this dis­cus­sion with some fur­ther tu­tor­ing for Sonko. The point of mass tran­sit sys­tems any­where is not to get rid of PSVS. Not at all.

The ob­jec­tive of mass tran­sit is to im­prove com­muter trans­port, to min­imise the con­ges­tion caused by pri­vate ve­hi­cles, and to en­cour­age ev­ery­body to use pub­lic trans­porta­tion. Grad­u­ally, as a su­pe­rior mode of tran­sit en­trenches it­self, com­muters will take to it. The mata­tus will even­tu­ally phase them­selves out be­cause they will be un­able to com­pete.

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