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Do we really want to fix traffic jams?

May 20, 2007 Management, Sunday Nation

The Nation recently carried a two-page spread on the traffic congestion that is bedevilling us all. The news is that 5,000 new cars are, on average, now being registered every month, while the road network is barely expanding.

Too many cars, too few roads. And so we read the tales of the poor folks who get up at 4.30 am just to make it to work on time. We feel for the miserable souls who spend 4 hours every day in their cars, just going to and returning from their workplaces. And we wonder about the cost of it all: the wasted time; the extra maintenance; jangled nerves that lead to poor productivity; the pollution. Many countries estimate the cost of congestion in billions of dollars.

This column has covered the subject of traffic congestion in the past; but there is a message that is still not getting through. Most people regard this as a ‘supply’ problem: we need more roads. No argument there: we need to put in more roads as a national priority. So far so good: it’s the government’s fault. Give us more roads! Sorry to rain on you as you seethe self-righteously in your daily jam session, but more roads are only the starting point of the solution.

The rest of the answer is more unpalatable, as it requires a bold look at the ‘demand’ side of the ‘car-road’ equation. Why are so many cars being registered? Whenever you see over-consumption of a product or activity, you have to wonder whether the price has been set too low. And in this case it is obvious: the cost of owning and maintaining a vehicle in Kenya is ridiculously low, if you consider the TRUE cost of the activity. In Kenya we have the baffling situation that being poor does not prevent anyone from owning a car.

The problem is not that car-sellers, petrol retailers and mechanics are selling their products and services at below cost; far from it. The problem is that no-one is factoring in the societal costs of too many cars. All that pollution and congestion is a cost that every driver imposes on everyone else; but no one driver is asked to pay for it. The result: too much driving and, eventually, gridlock.

What to do? Here’s where it gets unpopular. Higher taxes on vehicles, especially older cars. Strict imposition of duty. Outright banning of cars more than a few years old. A properly administered annual test of roadworthiness of all cars more than, say, 5 years old. Much stricter licensing.

Why is this not done? Because Kenyans regard driving in their own cars as a God-given right, not a privilege. Because too much ‘mitumba‘ car importation is done by well-connected big shots. Because this will be a vote loser, not a vote winner. Because our institutions are too corrupt to impose a proper system of tests and fines.

Economic logic, therefore, is being ignored every day. No-one bears the full, true cost of driving; the tailbacks get longer. This problem cannot be fixed by the likes of you and me: a sensible higher authority is needed. That higher authority would impose costs so that we have the right number of cars; that authority would plough the money gathered back into transportation – it would build more roads, and open up a public transport market.

We already have a public transport network, incidentally; we just have a poor one. Our matatus are controlled by cartels, and we do nothing about it because those in authority are also the owners of the cartels. In bus and train transport, we create monopolies rather than a competitive industry. If we made all passenger-service providers behave and follow the rules, and if we allowed a variety of players in the industry, all those people who need to get to work would do so, at a price and a comfort level that suited their pocket. Without having to get into a 20-year-old banger that has no place on the road.

In this, as in so many things, our problem does not lie in investment as much as it does in management. It’s not the lack of money that cripples us; it’s the way we do things. We need to be very, very thoughtful about new roads and connection nodes. We need an intelligent framework of incentives and penalties. We need fair and strict enforcement. We need a market structure that encourages competition without ignoring regulation.

So there are the answers. More roads, but fewer cars as well. More duties, taxes and penalties. Better regulated private provision of public transport. Is it going to happen? Nope, because it’s never MY car that causes the problem, it’s always everyone else’s. Because we will kick and scream if anyone tries to raise the cost of driving. Because government will never act in the national interest as long as people with vested interests make policy.

So it’s going to be tailbacks today, tailbacks tomorrow. Keep on jammin’.

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