Wishing Nairobi were more like the affluent cities of the world is good and expected. However, I would urge caution when dealing with best practice vignettes and success stories . The major lesson from examples such as Mr. Penalosa of Bogota and Mr. Bloomberg of New York, is that people-friendly projects are, by nature, inclusive. They flow from a political decision to invest in all urban residents, rich and poor alike, and not from urban envy, or a mere desire to imitate more affluent cities.
Many cities we may seek to emulate have long taken care of both the physical fundamentals, including firefighting, building safety and sewerage, and the political fundamentals, including finances, fair electoral representation of urban residents and executive powers of elected officials. If these things are not in place, then Bloomberg-type inspirational leadership becomes almost impossible to achieve.
Nairobi, viewed through this lens has a wonderful opportunity, through the election of a governor with executive powers and some presumably predictable financing, to effect change. Making this city more liveable and people-friendly involves, first, including the less fortunate in improvements of fire safety, living conditions, transportation, education and wherever else the city has a mandate, and second, increasing public participation and transparency in governance.
We should ensure adequate firefighting for the whole city, because we believe that Eastlands matters as much as Westlands, that safety from fire in 2012 should not depend on our ability to afford G4S. Our firefighting mess is a shame and this city’s business potential, much of which lies east of Tom Mboya Street, shall continue to smoulder until fire is effectively controlled.
Whereas the loudest complaints about our traffic jams typically come from drivers and and matatu users, 47% of this city’s commuters walk to work. In addition to buses and trains, an adequate public transportation system should specifically target this group with safe bicycle paths closed to cars, throughout the city, because they also matter. Similarly, we should provide parks in Kayole, South B, Embakasi and elsewhere not just because New York is providing parks, but because we do, or ought to recognize, that every Nairobian is deserving of green space, yet hardly any can routinely access Karurua Forest, the Nairobi Aboretum or Uhuru Park, which looks rather dry at the moment.
Creating people-friendly cities also goes beyond revitalizing town centres to attract creatives a la Richard Florida, whose name is rarely mentioned in Kenyan newspapers, but whose creative class theory is writ large in planned developments such as Tatu City and Konza. To invest tax shillings in the less fortunate represents significant government spending, and so a leader is required who believes that all Nairobians are worthy of investments in basic livability and can make a case for such spending in the face of more fiscally conservative opposition. Such a leader should also be willing to take on those who profit from our shortcomings in public infrastructure in defence of the public interest.
Transparent governance, the other requirement of a liveable city, does not just involve public participation as set out in the Cities and Urban Areas Act of 2011, but also the right to observe local government as it executes substantive business. In Nairobi, the public is not allowed to witness municipal decision-making around development control, zoning and other otherwise public decisions. If Parliament allows the public to observe debate and motions, if the courts allow the public to observe acquittals and convictions, then city hall should allow the public to observe zoning, development, and other approvals. The effective Official Plan and Zoning By-law, which currently decide how land should be used in Nairobi, ought to be on the website of the Nairobi City Council today.
A city that values all its residents, cares for the most vulnerable, and is not afraid to transact business in the public eye is far more likely to be people-friendly. We must learn this lesson if we are to successfully emulate Enrique Penalosa and Michael Bloomberg. Merely wanting a better city won’t get us there.
Last month’s NTV Business Agenda brought together myriad players in the public transportation industry. Partly because of Wallace Kantai’s lively style, interesting insights percolated on the recent confrontation between the government and matatu operators. The players evidently understood where public transportation fell short in Nairobi, and also showed empathy with the wider needs of the urban community.
A number of solutions were floated. The Minister for Transport suggested dedicated lines for buses, Dennis Kashero of RVR asserted that rail was an investment opportunity as well as a way to meet corporate social responsibility needs, and the Nairobi Town Clerk Mr. Phillip Kisia spoke in support of creating substations from which large buses would ferry passengers around the CBD. Good ideas all.
Mr. Mukabanah, Chairman of the KEPSAH Transport Sector Board, made one of the evening’s most interesting contributions. He described Nairobi’s public transportation system as paratransit, which he panned as informal and prone to illegality, and decried the job losses which externally-assembled 14-seaters cause. This conversation about matatus, he also noted, had left out the 47% of Nairobi residents who walk to work for lack of bus fare.
Mr. Aligula from KIPPRA criticized the government for not having a public transportation framework. He emphasized the futility of expanding roads to ameliorate congestion and noted that buses were necessary even with a commuter rail system. Mr. Graeme Reid added his experiences from Johannesburg, where commuter taxis had filled a gap left by the apartheid government’s neglect of public transportation. He was categorical that development planning must be integrated with transport, and faulted developers in Kenya for not accounting for transportation in their planning.
Notwithstanding all these, it was Mr. Simon Kimutai of the Matatu Welfare Association who cheered me the most. He conceded that a desire to phase out 14-seaters was not unreasonable for Nairobi, even while defending their use in intercity transportation. Going into the show, I expected he and Mr. Mbugua to defend the matatu industry staunchly since they depend on it, but their contribution on the night did them a lot of credit.
It seems to me that they were not, and are not, against the phasing-out of 14-seater matatus in Nairobi. The Minister for Transport, if he has not already done so, should be swallowing up this concession and discussing other sweeteners including financing aimed at easing the transition to larger buses. In return, he should ask for clean combustion, improvements in body design to improve comfort and safety, one-strike-and-you-are-towed traffic violations, heavy fines for refuelling with the engine running, among others.
The only omission from an otherwise high quality panel was a representative from the local matatu manufacturing industry. I am not referring to the firms which create the engine and the chassis, but the local body builders. Some of the best known are Labh Singh Harnam Singh (LSHS), Banbros, Kenya Coach Industries (KCI), DODI Autotech, Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM), and 2M Autotech.
These are the people who design and build what we know as the matatu, who create those steel seat – frames with sharp edges, the seats at the back where long-legged people just can’t fit and seats above the rear wheel well that leave your feet squashed when you alight. They could have shed light on the opportunities and constraints of delivering efficient, socially responsive public transportation on a matatu platform, what plans they have to use technology towards streamlining customer service and creating more comfortable vehicles, and what they see as the grand vision for matatu transportation in Kenya.
I also sought and missed concrete evidence of steps that the matatu sector is itself taking to make their drivers more law- abiding and their services more regular and consistent. Utter disregard for the law, inconsistent service delivery, and unwillingness to accord commuters any comfort whatsoever persist in Nairobi. Those big buses can’t come fast enough.
Happy New(ish) Year, Dear Nairobians!
Unlike past years, I am cautiously optimistic about Nairobi City Hall in 2012. While there is always something to complain about, as there should be, the occupants of what is now 5 City Hall Way have actually done some very decent work in the CBD.
For starters, the Aga Khan Walk has been greatly expanded along Co-op Bank House onto Moi Avenue, which significantly improves pedestrian connectivity throughout. The red brick walkways along Kenyatta Avenue should reduce pedestrian congestion along the storefronts while exposing the colonial war memorials, the better to appreciate youthful Kenyans who were trafficked to the front line of a war that was none of their business.
There has also been a welcome widening of sidewalks, trees, benches, and use of one-way streets to limit vehicular traffic in areas of high pedestrian density and shopping precincts, such as Mama Ngina Street.
You may be saying, “Yeah, so what?”, but they are good changes, and when people put effort in and get things right we should acknowledge as much, before moving to what’s not been gotten right. To wit:
The Tom Mboya statue, erected only a few feet from the spot where he was assassinated, and the Tom Mboya Walk connecting Tom Mboya Street and Moi Avenue, have increased walkability and connectivity, created additional marketing space and added great character to what was previously a bland, motorized stretch of concrete. To improve it further, the lights around the statue should be kept on the whole night. The additional illumination would improve the lighting of what is a heavily trafficked area after nightfall, while enhancing the role of the installation in evoking perpetual memory. Given current nightly expenses on streetlights, the additional expense should be manageable.
What has not been gotten right is the incompleteness in evidence to all who visit the statue. Shujaa Tom Mboya was unveiled last October to great fanfare by both the President and the Prime Minister of Kenya, yet the interpretive plaque meant to tell the world just how heroic the man was is still missing, almost three months later. The wall surrounding the installation, to pile on further, is only finished on the outside. Such sub-optimal workmanship must disappoint those who come to see it, and if you have been there, you know there are many.
One can understand that time constraints may have prevented completion before the official unveiling. Yet the outstanding work could easily have been completed afterwards. Is there nobody at City Hall, or in the Government at large, sufficiently embarrassed that Kenyans coming from all over the country are viewing incomplete work? It may sound pedantic, but when you create public art at taxpayer expense, to be seen and appreciated by the public, then surely impressions are everything.