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Friday, August 19, 2016

A Tale Of Two Highways

In July, on a short visit to the UK, I took a 200 kilometre drive on the M40 from London to Birmingham. Travelling through the English countryside, one is treated to lots of greenery but not much else. In fact, for one used to Kenyan roads, this is perhaps the most remarkable thing about travelling on the motorway. For two hours, apart from my fellow motorists and their passengers, there was little sign of life. No towns, no cyclists, no bus stops, no pedestrians strolling beside it or trying to cross it.

Last weekend, I had occasion to use another “superhighway” this time, back in Kenya. The experience was quite different. It took about two and a half hours to cover the 126 kilometres from Nairobi to Karatina, just under half of which is on the famous Thika Superhighway, the signature infrastructure project of the Kibaki administration. Massive tailbacks are a feature at the regular bumps erected to facilitate pedestrian crossings along the busy and populated areas the road rumbles through. In addition, 18 footbridges span it and another 10 are planned. Matatus are constantly stopping to (mostly illegally) pick up or drop passengers. It is a road that is full of life.

It is also a road sadly filled with death. According to the National Transport and Safety Authority, it is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week.

Why are so many dying and being maimed? The NTSA says the 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians. In fact, the 2014 Senate committee report indicated that nearly 800 pedestrians had been arrested for attempting to cross from undesignated areas. The remaining fifth of crashes were attributed to mechanical condition of vehicles, weather and the state of the road itself.

This understanding has informed the measures undertaken to tackle the problem. From increased enforcement to the erection of bumps to slow down traffic on what was touted as an expressway, to building more footpaths and erecting barriers to prevent unauthorized crossings. Yet, few eyebrows were raised 6 months ago when Transport Secretary, James Macharia, announced the government’s intention to remove the existing bumps, which were themselves said to be a safety feature. It was an indicator of where the problem truly lies.

To understand why, take a look at Sweden. In 1997, the country, which has one of the best road safety records in the world, adopted a radical Vision Zero policy, which seeks to not just reduce, but eliminate deaths and injuries on its roads. The main pillar of the policy is that those who design, maintain and enforce the road system and its rules are ultimately responsible for the level of safety within it.

In essence, it is not enough to simply point the finger at errant drivers and stupid pedestrians. Road crashes are also a function of the design and rules of the road. In fact the policy puts the onus not on users but on the designers. The late Donella Meadows described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior.

With this understanding, we can begin to see that the difference between Thika Superhighway and the M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly the such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behavior on them.

To explain its projects and well aware of Kenyans’ deep acquaintance with empty promises of “development”, the government has been wont to use a single word – inajengwa (it is being built). And indeed, for many citizens, the fact that after decades of getting nothing for their taxes, the fact that something, anything, is erected is a cause for celebration. But such joy is, as we have seen, bound to end in grief. Inajengwa is the reason why few questions were raised when scammers were irregularly paid KSh791 million for a road in Kibera. Inajengwa is why we are today spending Ksh400 billion to build a railway line next to an existing one and getting, according to one consultant, “a third-rate railway for the cost of a very expensive one”.

It is time we said inajengwa is not enough.

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