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Nairobi’s traffic problem is a behaviour problem

I have been beating the traffic-gridlock tune on my drum on this page since 2003.  Every year, the situation in our capital city gets worse.  Every year, leaders yawn and look away.  But for how much longer?

As Nairobians of all walks of life can testify, the situation is now at breaking point.  In recent weeks we have had several days on which traffic has been at a complete standstill in pretty much all corners of this once-proud city.  It has taken unfortunate residents five, six or seven hours just to get to their homes.

The thing that perplexes me most: where’s the leadership?  This thing cannot be resolved by the people.  The people, in fact, have fallen into grave civic disorder, breaking every rule in the traffic book at will.  But that is where leadership is meant to come in, is it not?

Political leaders, we know that the traffic-standstill problem does not affect you personally.  We see that some of you travel in vast convoys and have the traffic cleared from your path.  We observe that most of you feel you are above the law, instructing your drivers to overtake and overlap without the slightest concern for others.

But is that your leadership – that if something doesn’t hurt you personally, you need do nothing about it?  Leadership only matters if it improves the wellbeing of the collective – otherwise it is of no consequence and no meaning.  A real leader should look at this situation and feel severe pain in the gut.

Why does it not matter to ministers, permanent secretaries and senior technocrats that the city is becoming unlivable?  How many billions of shillings in GDP are being squandered on the roads every year?  After all, all those people are not doing anything while they fidget in a jam – they are waiting to do something.  Waiting is not productive.

CEOs: I know you sit in air-conditioned comfort at the back of your limos, typing away on your BlackBerries and iPads.  You may be working during gridlock – but what about your employees?  They don’t have that convenience.  Their productivity and morale is being hammered every day by time wasted in jams, early starts and late finishes.  So why aren’t you using your collective clout to attack this problem?

The thing is this: the jams are neither inevitable nor insurmountable.  This problem can be solved. It is within our reach.  There is an obvious thing that can be done, literally overnight.

The real reason we are in gridlock is sheer breakdown in social order. So what happened to the traffic police? Are overlapping, driving on pavements, refusing to use designated stops, parking on busy roads no longer an offense to the Highway Code?  Do we even have a code any more?  Regulators seem to have completely abdicated their duties, watching wananchi descend further into misbehaviour every day.  All it would need is even one week of reinforcing the law and the laid-down rules to have a significant impact. Is that beyond us now?

Of course, there are bigger solutions, but they will take time.  Accelerate the new road network – and build roads to last more than just six months. Address corruption in car importation and licensing, and in driver training.  Introduce properly regulated, affordable public transport solutions. Use taxation and road pricing to ensure that the full cost of driving is imposed on drivers.  And overhaul police governance so that the enforcement of even the smallest regulation is not a vehicle for extortion.

Those things must come.  Without them, our whole economic engine will seize up.  But we can also act on the here and now.  Bad behaviour is everywhere, and it is worsening every journey for everyone.  Simply making drivers behave like civilized human beings is now the burning issue. I hope someone will step in to address it.

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