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A discussion in a traffic jam

Greetings, fellow motorists. We appear to be in a traffic jam. Cars ahead, cars behind. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait. Perhaps we can have a little discussion as we sit immobile, to help pass the time?

We all agree, I’m sure, that the main roads of Nairobi at rush hour are no place to be. At 8 in the morning, the queue on Argwings Kodhek Road stretches from the Nairobi Hospital all the way back to Lavington. If you have the misfortune to be on Thika Road at the same time, you will be part of a line that goes from Pangani to Ruaraka – a distance of many, many kilometres. And the heavens protect you if you happened to be coming in from JKIA during the evening rush hour: prepare to join your brethren in silent torment on Mombasa Road.

So we have hundreds of thousands of people simply stuck in their cars, staring into space. Who benefits? Certainly the petroleum firms; perhaps the FM radio stations. For everyone else, it is time squandered. Employees turn up late at work. Important meetings fail to kick off on time. People seethe and stir restlessly in their hot vehicles, their mood worsening by the minute. Productivity undoubtedly suffers. Many countries measure the cost of lateness in billions of dollars.

It helps to have a meditative frame of mind, and to sink into deep contemplation during the many otherwise pointless hours you will spend behind the wheel. If you have this capacity, you may want to reflect on what is causing this gridlock, and what we should do about it.

Ah, I see a road planner in the brown hatchback over there. He is saying that this is simply a problem of design and capacity. Our old-fashioned radial city networks are just not equipped to deal with the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that are now piling onto the roads. They were designed for a gentler age. The answer, the planner proclaims, is to build all the ‘bypasses’ his department keeps talking about, so that Nairobians can get from Lavington to the airport, say, or from Loresho to Thika Road, without having to go anywhere near the city centre. Bypasses are used all over the world for precisely this reason.

But wait, we have a behavioural scientist in the pink Beetle over there. She is telling us that it is bad road behaviour that makes the traffic jams so awful. It is because we have little knowledge of the Highway Code, and even less of personal ethical codes, that we routinely cross lanes, drive into oncoming traffic and do other moronic things. It is because we place no emphasis on good behaviour that we allow mentally disturbed people to become drivers of public vehicles.

If behaviour is the problem, then what is needed is a national good driving campaign. Campaigns work. They instil peer pressure and promote good values. They place shame and fear of discredit in the hearts of miscreants. A good driving campaign would not even lack funding: a whole range of private-sector players can be gathered to back it: petroleum firms; tyre manufacturers; vehicle sellers. We also need to get very serious about penalties for bad offences: impounding vehicles and banning drivers are measures found in every civilised country.

Both these approaches have great merit, and both would produce results. But there is a fundamental issue that they do not address, and it is this: why do we have so many cars on the roads? Why do we make it so easy to own, maintain and run a vehicle?

Now hang on, I hear the gentleman in the red Toyota shouting. Isn’t the right to drive a car inalienable? Kenyans need to have the freedom to drive to wherever they want. The arteries of the economy run in this way. Why would you want to mess around with it? Your point is made, sir – please get down from the roof of your vehicle.

The smart young economist in the Subaru behind you has a ready answer. Yes, you should have the freedom to own a car and drive it – provided you are paying the cost of that activity in full. Listen to her: she’s saying something about ‘externalities’ – activities that place costs on others. When you pay a pittance for that rust-bucket from Dubai, fuel it up and put it on the road, you are placing many involuntary costs on society.

For one thing, you are adding to the congestion problem. For another, your aged engine is sending toxic fumes into everyone’s nostrils. However, unless you are forced to bear these costs yourself, you will not be deterred. We are, in effect, allowing an activity to take place at less than its true cost. Over-consumption naturally ensues. The result you know about: gridlock.

If individuals face the true costs of an activity, they make the correct economic decisions. How can this be done? One way is simply to impose higher taxes on vehicles. Oops, please stop hooting all at once. Cars should not cost more, you’re all shouting. They’re already ‘too’ expensive. But those mitumba imports are certainly not too pricey – if anything, their true cost is not reflected at all. Does higher duty on aged imports not make sense? Alternatively, we could simply ban cars that are more than an agreed number of years old. We’ve started to do this, but clearly haven’t gone far enough.

Perhaps the tax should come in the form of higher fuel taxes? Oh dear, please stop hooting again. It doesn’t help this discussion. But you have a point: that is a sweeping measure that will make all road travel more expensive and make our economy even more ‘high-cost’ than it already is.

Could we look at what other countries do? You sir, in the BMW: you look well travelled and seem to feed well on per diems from your employer. What can you tell us? Congestion charges? Ah, yes. London’s experiment with a charge for entering the inner city during peak hours is something of a success: peak traffic has been brought under control using a hefty £8 (Sh. 1,000) daily charge. Singapore? Yes, their electronic road pricing system has been successfully regulating traffic flows for many years. Also, many countries require cars over a certain age to pass an annual test for roadworthiness.

Can we agree with the lady economist that we are in this jam because we have made driving in Kenya a free-for-all – low entry costs, freedom to drive at any time at the same cost, freedom to pollute and congest? That if we found intelligent ways of incorporating the true costs of the activity we would solve the problem? No? I see you all settling back into your seats. It is true that none of us have the individual incentive to crack this one. That is why a higher agency is needed. I believe other countries call this agency ‘government’.

Anyway, get comfortable, start flipping FM channels. We’ll all be here for a long time.

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