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Towards a Political Economy of Transportation Policy and Practice in Nairobi

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  1. Cited in Alternative Energy October 10th, 2006 at

  2. Kasanga, Mulwa, J. in the case of Republic vs. Kenya Roads Board ex parte John Harun Mwau, Nairobi High Court Civil Application NO. 1372 of 2000.

  3. For some of the exceptions, see Flyvbjerg (2002), Zittoun (2008), Vasconcellos (2001), Vigar (2001) and Weir et al. (2008).

  4. To see this expansion visually, go to UNEP (2009: 146–147) which shows a number of satellite images over time.

  5. As Sclar et al. (2009) argues, cities everywhere must grapple with the fact that “the era of inexpensive energy is over” and the environment is not a “free good.”

  6. Arku (2009: 257) notes that in 1975 only eight urban agglomerations had a population between 500,000 and five million, but 40 existed in 2005 and this is expected to reach 58 by 2015. In absolute terms, Africa’s urban population will increase from roughly 33 million in 1950 to 295 million in 2000 and as much as 742 million by 2030.

  7. According to statistics used by the Kenya Bus Service, there are 880,000 in Kenya; 550,000 are in Nairobi of which 15,000 are matatus.

  8. Interestingly, a Gallup poll of Africans taken in June 2007-October 2008 found widespread dissatisfaction with public transportation systems and roads and highways. Often, these two categories along with health care elicited the highest median dissatisfaction scores in the various countries and regions sampled. See

  9. See the presentation “An Overview of Nairobi Metro 2030 Strategy” of Timothy Ndorongo, Director of Metropolitan Planning and Environment, Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development available online at

  10. As Opiyo (2009: 6) notes of the 1973 plan “the strategy proposed various bus routes which were not implemented and the layout also emphasized on the CBD and industrial area as core employment areas and this in itself encouraged motorization instead of pedestrianization, since apart for the railways staff who were housed near the work stations, people working in other sectors had to use vehicles to get to work. Non-motorized Transport routes were also not provided for.”

  11. There is a growing group of urban planners, architects, and policymakers who are arguing for new urban modalities and visions.

  12. However, some developments are touting their “green” status because of their mixed use-residential, recreational, office complexes and stores that would in theory allow for less use of the car.

  13. In Kenyan popular culture, the new political elite were in fact named “wabenzi” after their car of preference—the Mercedes Benz.

  14. Studies suggest that pedestrians form the majority of the fatalities (see Khayesi 2003).

  15. One analysis suggests that in 1973 they carried 16% of the passengers in Nairobi compared with the Kenya Bus Service, which carried 84%, but by 1995 they carried approximately 55% (Maunder and Mbara 1996).

  16. An exception is the 2004 “Michuki rules” named after then transport Minister John Michuki which involved eliminating standing on city buses, mandating that Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) be outfitted with speed governors and safety belts, crews wear uniforms and post identification cards, vehicles get regular check-ups and that a yellow stripe designate a vehicle as public.

  17. Habaryimana and Jack (2009) conducted a field experiment, which encouraged passengers to exert social pressure on their drivers through evocative messages encouraging them to speak up. These messages were placed inside a random sample of over 1,000 long-distance matatus. Their results suggest a significant impact of these simple measures. This is not a substitute for rigorous regulation but an additional measure that mitigates against the sense of helplessness conveyed by wa Mungai and Samper (2006).

  18. In 2003, for example, 30% of the public spending went to road transport, more than any other sector (Republic of Kenya 2005: 4).

  19. Even within allocations for motorized transport a disproportionate amount of resources is going to cars and freight trucks (road building) versus rail (Republic of Kenya 2010a). There is much more political analysis to conduct into this dynamic.

  20. This is typical for African countries. A recent World Bank study notes that there is “a pronounced capital bias in road spending, with investment accounting for 2/3 of total spending in resource rich, low income countries, especially those without adequate institutional mechanisms for funding road maintenance” (World Bank 2010, 215). Poorer countries spend more on roads than richer countries but do not maintain them, ultimately costing them even more. The same report notes that aid fuels part of the capital bias; aid financing covers 50% of road investment in Senegal and 90% in Rwanda (2010: 215). Note that in continuity with colonial times, road investment in resource rich countries is in part driven by resource extraction which, along with rent-seeking by authorities, may help explain the lack of concern for maintenance in the longer term.

  21. A similar dynamic is at work with the Ministry of Transport on other projects in the works such as proposed Kenya Railway Corporation upgrading of the commuter rail system and the proposed light rail system.

  22. See Todes 2011.

  23. This dynamic will change under the new constitution, which limits the number of cabinet posts/ministries to 22.

  24. The Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit falls under the Public Works Ministry and the Transport Licensing Board is in the Transport Ministry. They are both sources of rents for the Ministries.

  25. Actors in the Nairobi City Council have linkages to the Ministry of Local Government (which were evident in a recent land scandal around the acquisition of cemetery land (Republic of Kenya 2010b) and acrimonious relations to the Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development. This helps explain the parallel transport and land-use processes.

  26. Another problem is linked to the engineering methodology of road construction which fails to be context sensitive (Beukes et al. 2011).

  27. One estimate suggests that it costs 27 billion ($333 million) but this is likely to be an under-estimate.

  28. Interestingly when expansion of Mombasa Road in the South threatened powerful businesses with demolition, including the Standard Media Group, the Ministry of Roads appointed a task force and accepted the principle that alternative designs were possible for the road. See “No demolitions on Mombasa Road after all” Wanambisi, Laban. Capital News April 4, 2011. Available at

  29. They are the contractor for the Nairobi Eastern and Northern Bypass, which is 85% funded by the Exim Bank of China.

  30. Thika Highway is being built in three segments involving different financing and contractors.

  31. Construction November 25, 2010 available at The same article suggests that Chinese companies have “scooped more than two thirds of the lucrative tenders for the fiscal year ending in June in which $973.1 million was budgeted for spending on roads”. It does not, however, give the source.

  32. Historically, there has been a long history of foreign consultants making plans for Nairobi. These include the very first Railway plan done by British engineers, to the 1948 plan by South African consultants to the UNEP sponsored 1973 plan (which however had more local involvement) to the JICA transport plan and the more recent plan by Indian engineers. Kenyans also came up with a transport and land-use vision of the “Nairobi We Want” through consultation and discussion (see Karuga 1993). However, these local ideas are rarely discussed in planning circles.

  33. The spatial plan is available online at

  34. One key set of reforms is in the Road Act 2007 which is attempting to create viable and delocalized road funds for maintenance


  36. These actors were singled out in the June 2009 Budget speech for their contributions to the road and energy sector.

  37. See and for details including the endorsement letter signed by the Nairobi City Council see

  38. “Proposed Plans for a Mass Transit System for Metropolitan Nairobi” presentation to the Ministry of Metropolitan Development by APEC and GES consulting firms August 26, 2010.

  39. See Minutes of Donor (Roads & Transport) Sector Working Group Meeting, Held on 2nd June 2010.

  40. For the history see

  41. See the award winning video by underprivileged Nairobi youth promoting bicycles at

  42. Understandably, a key focus of such groups is on housing, but of course housing and transportation are related. Where housing is located entails higher or lower transportation costs and the existence of viable choices in transportation can also reduce overall household costs and improve the quality of life, including health.

  43. The Chairman of the Kenya Alliance of Residents Association, Stephen Mutoro, also raised this as a key weakness. Interview 2010.

  44. See Anthony Kitimo. “Exclusion of key roads in tender advert faulted” Property Kenya available at and Alphonce Shiundu “Minister Flies to Voi Over Road Protest” Daily Nation 10 November 2010 available at

  45. We do not have good epidemiological studies of the health impacts of the poor air quality in African cities like Nairobi but there is a deep concern about the possible link to many respiratory illnesses and cancers.

  46. A common pool resource is one that is difficult to exclude people from using but has high levels of subtractability (if one person uses it, it tends take away an opportunity for another to use it). In crowded conditions roads and public transit take on some characteristics of common pool resources not purely public resources such as peace and security where there is low subtractablity.

  47. In contrast, reforms in the road sector that accountably decentralize funds that enable localities to work with planning authorities and also hire youth to maintain roads are promising; such reforms could create more access to services, improve opportunities and give employment to youth.

  48. See

  49. See

  50. See

  51. The Volvo Research and Educational Foundations and Rockefeller Foundation, respectively, are supporting these initiatives.

  52. Further, more engaged research that links universities and students to work in and for cities has the virtue of circulating knowledge back into the policy realm while building networks for change (Klopp et al. 2011).


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The Rockefeller Foundation and the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations generously supported this research. I wish to thank Elizabeth Marcello and Geoffrey Charles for their insight and work on this paper. Elliott Sclar, Meleckidzedeck Khayesi, Nicole Volavka-Close, Jennifer Schumacher-Kocik as well as Sakiko Fakuda-Parr, Michael Cohen, Bob Buckley and the entire Development Thought and Policy Seminar at The New School provided helpful comments and insights into this work.

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Klopp, J.M. Towards a Political Economy of Transportation Policy and Practice in Nairobi. Urban Forum 23, 1–21 (2012).

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  • Road Construction
  • United Nations Environment Programme
  • Central Business District
  • Transportation Sector
  • Common Pool Resource