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Traffic jams: the conversation continues

Last week this column featured a ‘discussion’ held in the middle of one of Nairobi’s perennial traffic jams. A number of ‘participants’ from various disciplines put forward their points of view regarding the causes of our gridlocked traffic – and offered various solutions.

My mailbox is testimony to the fact that this is a subject on many people’s minds. Many readers offered new perspectives on the problem. So this week, let the conversation continue.

First to shoot off a response was Robert Kagundah, a consultant based in Canada. He remarked that he has noticed that North Americans and Europeans who visit this fair land of ours used to wax lyrical about the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the people; these days, however, they talk about the “impenetrable clouds of thick black diesel smoke” that smother tourists as they leave the airport.

Indeed. And tourism is not the only industry under threat. Mr. Kagundah agrees with the ‘economist’ in last week’s discussion: Kenyans are not bearing the full costs of the vehicles they so proudly possess. There are actual costs that are often completely ignored: complying with pollution requirements; comprehensive insurance; and regular maintenance. Mr. Kagundah points out that the onus is on the government to make these costs a reality – by using tougher regulations and enforcing them. That way we will make sure that those who drive a car bear the true and full costs of doing so.

Michael Odhiambo stepped in with a legal perspective, which was missing in the previous discussion. Mr. Odhiambo is clearly a lawyer who thinks like an economist; that is, he preoccupies himself with the issue of individual incentives. For this reason, he told me, he is particularly interested in traffic laws. To him, traffic laws demonstrate that the greatest incentive for an individual to obey the law is the benefit that accrues to that individual from others obeying the same law.

It is not clear, however, that many Kenyans understand this basic point. We all drive on the correct side of the road because if we did not, none of us would go anywhere. Clearly, matatu drivers and other road maniacs flout this rule in the expectation that few others will do so. If we all followed suit, a total standstill would ensue.

Reciprocal obedience is important: we are all more likely to comply with the Traffic Act and the Highway Code if others do so too. Even those wanting to do the right thing are soon overwhelmed by the self-centred cretins who flout the rules, especially after observing that no penalties are paid by those who transgress. As more ‘right-doers’ become ‘wrong-doers’, mayhem ensues. As indeed it does on Nairobi’s streets.

There is self-interest in traffic-law observance, therefore; and Mr. Odhiambo feels that the fact that Kenyans have such problems obeying traffic laws augers badly for obedience to other laws, where the self-interest angle is weaker.

Mr. Odhiambo finished by putting the onus back on the authorities: nothing will happen unless we have the correct enforcement machinery that forces law-breakers to pay a price.

Mr. Andrew Irungu saw it differently. He took issue with me for being on the side of the ‘haves'( I suspect the ‘haves’ will be pleasantly surprised!), and accused me of putting forward “punitive measures” that will deter “up-coming Kenyans.” He pointed out that the most important cause of traffic jams is the poor road network: one- or two-lane highways, for example, that cannot cope with the load placed on them; and the fact that we still rely on roundabouts when most countries have moved to flyovers.

Very true, Mr. Irungu; and I have no misconceptions about the state of our roads. I agree with you that new flyovers and bypasses would help us greatly. But we part company when it comes to agreeing that this is the only dimension of the problem. I have no desire to prevent Kenyans from ‘coming up’ in terms of development, but we must do so in accordance with economic laws. When we mistake ‘activity’ for ‘development’ we mislead ourselves greatly.

The fact that there are so many Kenyans with cars to drive is not a testament to our wellbeing: it is in fact evidence that we are under-pricing the activity, and neglecting more efficient forms of public transport. Our public transport systems show all the extremes of market structure: we have managed uniquely to combine the chaos of a free-for-all with the rigidities of cartels (the matatu industry); and have persisted with outright monopolies that offer no incentive for improvement in service (bus and rail).

Any thoughtful attempt to free up the traffic gridlocks would undoubtedly take a dispassionate look at the structures of competition, as well as the modernisation of the road network. But we cannot escape the realities of capturing the ‘true cost’ of driving. No country has. Look at London’s M25 orbital motorway: once hailed as the ‘ultimate’ bypass that would solve all London’s traffic problems, it is now a heaving mass of stagnant traffic at most times, and has even inspired a famous song: “The Road to Hell”. Improving roads in isolation of other measures often has a perverse effect: even more people are attracted to using those roads.

As things stand in Kenya, we have combined an awful road network with a rotting national fleet of vehicles. Autonews magazine revealed recently that the age of the average Kenyan vehicle is now twice the global average. Add to that the fact that we are contenders for the worst road behaviour award, and that we allow anyone to drive anything at any time – well, the results are before you.

Consider this: if a film is very popular, does the cinema set the tickets at half price and allow any number of people to enter the hall, three to a seat, sitting and standing permitted, some even hanging from the ceiling? No, that would be ridiculous. It would ruin every single person’s enjoyment of the movie, and would wreck the cinema hall.

A sensible approach would be to price the movie to reflect supply and demand. This pricing could vary by time of day. If, however, it is believed that the film in question is of great social value and should be made available to a public that may not otherwise afford it, the government would step in and subsidise extra shows at low prices. Or it would make the movie available in organised open-air venues.

Roads are no different. Those who can bear the full cost of using them should do so. For the rest, we should find intelligent ways of allowing people to use roads without bringing everything to a standstill. This is always a multi-faceted strategy: we need better roads; we need strict enforcement of road rules; we need better, more competitive and more varied public transport; and we need to think hard about the incentives and penalties that govern road usage.

Kenya will not develop by being ‘mitumba’ in everything. There are better ways. Something to think about in your next jam session.

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