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Nairobi Gets Traffic Advice from Bogota

11 July 2006

Kenyan traffic police officer stands at a traffic light on a busy Nairobi Road
Kenyan traffic police officer stands at a traffic light on a busy Nairobi Road
Kenya's capital, Nairobi, suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.  Kenya has received help for the problem from South America.

Less than one-tenth of Nairobi's three million citizens own cars.  Yet traffic is a serious problem.  Every morning and evening, during peak commuter hours, the city comes to a standstill.

This is not just a problem for commuters, but is also increasingly a major health risk.  Millions of Kenyans are believed to be suffering from diseases related to pollution.

Kenyan transport officials have received some advice on how to deal with traffic congestion from the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, who solved much of his city's traffic woes through a series of innovative projects. 

Penalosa says Nairobi's traffic problem is a difficulty shared by many cities in the developing world. 

"It is the only problem we have in developing countries that does not get better as we get richer, it gets worse," he said.  "If Kenya had three times the income per capita it had today it would have better education, health.  But urban transport would be worse, it would be more cars, more traffic jams it would be more of a mess.  So we have to remember the most advanced cities in the world people use public transport, like in New York, 90 percent do not even have a car."

Nairobi's only form of public transport is local mini buses, called matatus.  Matatu drivers frequently create traffic chaos by dropping off passengers in the middle of the street and stopping anywhere and at anytime to pick up more people.

When Penalosa replaced a similar system of private buses with the privately owned public transport buses he ensured the old bus workers had jobs and a stake in the new company.

Penalosa encourages Kenyan officials to invest in building a clean, efficient public transport system, which will discourage people from relying solely on cars.

"We are really creating not only a more sustainable environment, a more humane city," he added.  "Also a more competitive city that will work better and will attract more investment, more tourism, more jobs.  But also I think most important a more just democratic society."

When Penalosa first began to implement his radical strategies in 1998, his approval rating hovered around just 15 percent.   When his term as mayor ended three years later, he was hailed as one of Colombia's rising political stars.

Kenyan transport officials said they were impressed by Enrique Penalosa's proposals and would seriously consider them.  Many Kenyans are hoping that action will be taken soon to alleviate Nairobi's growing transport crisis.

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