Transportation Innovation in Nairobi

Posted on February 13th, 2013 by


Kenya’s Innovation Leadership
Innovation is born out of necessity, open mindedness and effort. Kenya has these attributes in spades. It is the world leader in mobile payments with the vast and rapid adoption of programs like m-PESA, an SMS-based banking and money transfer system. They continue to push the frontiers of mobile finance and supply chain transformation. IBM is opening their new African R&D lab in Nairobi. The city is home to a Silicon Valley style hackerspace, called iHub, created to cultivate native innovation. It is time to focus some of this energy, enthusiasm and investment on transforming the transportation system with a bike-sharing program.

Nairobi Traffic
During a recent trip to Kenya, I felt first hand the impacts of an eagerly developing nation being held back by its growing pains. Speak with anyone who has spent time in Nairobi and one of the first topics that comes up, after a discussion about the amazing openness and warmth of its citizens, is the horrendous traffic. While I was there, it reached epic proportions. A new traffic law was passed that was seen by most people I spoke with as being overly punitive. In response, the entire “public transportation” system, comprised mostly of small buses called matatus (also known as Public Service Vehicles [PSVs]) went on strike. Transportation came to a grinding to a halt. PSVs that normally shuttle people to and from work, sat idle on the side of the road. Those that dared to transport people were attacked by the mobs for lack of solidarity. The streets were flooded with people walking, sometimes hours each way.

Mutatu Strike

Not for the Faint of Heart
To be clear, even before the law and the strike, driving in Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. There are few stoplights or traffic control signs. Police stand in the middle of vast roundabouts manually waving traffic through an intersection that can take 10 minutes or more to traverse. Four-wheel drive vehicles are almost a necessity because of the major potholes and short cuts that are dirt roads up gutted hills. Awareness of bikes on the road, and eventually a dedicated infrastructure like bike lanes, will be necessary for a massive deployment to be safe for riders.

Avoiding Downtown Traffic Jam

Inundated Infrastructure
Like most developing nations with a growing GDP and population, the need to transport goods and workers often outpaces the country’s ability to adapt by providing infrastructure and regulation. Additionally, the cost of updating or building out infrastructure can be prohibitive for governments that are also dealing with massive health, education and energy issues. For individuals, owning a vehicle can be a means to access new job markets or revenue streams. Population pressures and a rising middle class have resulted in a completely inundated infrastructure.

Mid-Day Nairobi Traffic

New Options Needed
Nairobi has very limited commuter transportation options. There are a few commuter trains and currently only one commuter light rail to one suburb. There are plans to build additional commuter lines but even if these do happen on schedule they will only address a subset of the population and will still be prohibitively expensive for many of Nairobi’s workforce. For the majority of the population, commuting will continue to be a long, cramped journey into the city in a PSV through overly congested roads. Creating a bike system could provide an economical alternative, independence and flexibility for the majority of Nairobi’s workforce while significantly reducing environmental impact.

Environmental Impact
A large-scale bike program would have a massive impact on the air quality and CO2 levels in Nairobi. Montreal, a city half the size and with much better default emissions regulations, saw a reduction of 3,000,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses in its first year of the bike program’s operation. Most fast-paced developing countries are having challenges with air quality. Beijing recently registered Air Quality Index numbers that were literally off the chart. Nairobi could avoid costly measures down the road by adopting proactive policies now. It could also create a more desirable business climate.

Economic Impact

According to Nairobi’s own City Council, traffic congestion cost the city roughly $600,000 per day. With this understanding, investing in a bike program to alleviate traffic makes sound financial sense. In Paris, where there was already a world-class public transportation system, the introduction of the bike-sharing program reduced traffic by 5% the first year. This type of reduction to Nairobi’s traffic could have a massive positive impact to the economy. Providing more affordable options could also profoundly effect people’s lives, when many of the city’s workers live on less than $2 or $3 a day and a mutatu ride may cost around $.80. Many financial models have been tested, but a bike program in Nairobi must focus on being affordable for all commuters.

Bike Program Models

There are already groups exploring and sponsoring possible bike program models. Bike outlined some fundamental requirements for a bike program to be successful and tied it to a student design contest. The bikes must have strong security and tracking systems to avoid theft. By flooding the market with low-cost bikes, this threat is diminished. It’s even possible that additional revenue streams, like phone charging while biking, could off-set rental charges. By providing affordable access to bikes, Nairobi could create a more sustainable future for the city and its inhabitants.

Public-Private-Entrepreneurial Partnerships
Nairobi has the opportunity to be the Copenhagen of Africa by implementing a new bike-transit system. This could alleviate the stifling traffic, which is one of the cities worst impediments to growth, creating a more desirable environment for businesses. Municipal bike sharing programs have been in existence for 45 years and many models have been proven successful. In a country that continues to look for investment, public-private partnership might provide the perfect solution. Corporations could provide sponsorship through advertisements. NGOs could work with community organizations to provide the necessary education to drive adoption and adherence to the bike program policies. Entrepreneurs could create the sustainable business model that pulls all the parties together. The government will need to create bike friendly traffic areas and regulations.

Written by Shannon Lucas. As Enterprise Innovation Manager at Vodafone Global Enterprise, Shannon helps customers transform their business by leveraging mobile and telecommunications technologies to create sustainable models. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, Shannon Lucas. 

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