Directed by
Ideas for growth
Directed by
Ideas for growth

How transport reforms have impacted urban connectivity in Kenya

For this third blog in our series on Chinese and African urbanisation, we explore how transport reforms have affected the delivery of urban connectivity infrastructure in Kenya, and how this compares with the different growth experiences of Chinese cities. 

Early investment in transportation has been a fundamental feature of China’s relatively successful urban and economic transition. Since the 1980s ‘reform and opening-up’, large and sustained public infrastructure investments have played a huge role in stimulating urban productivity and overall quality of life. With improved investment in connectivity, China’s cities could then attract vast sums of private finance, allowing them to tap into and enhance their competitiveness in global markets.

For many African countries however, legacies of weak investment have resulted in rapidly growing cities that are characterised by low connectivity and growth. In Kenya, where we focus our attention in this blog, urban transportation was largely neglected up until the mid-2000s, despite the fact that cities at this time accounted for more than 75 per cent of the country’s GDP and over 30 percent of its population. Less than 7 percent of Nairobi’s roads were paved in 2008, despite the population having tripled in the preceding three decades to a point of over 3 million inhabitants. Congestion was estimated to be costing the capital more than 5.6 million US$ in lost productivity per day, and more than an hour in traffic for the average citizen.

Like many urban areas in the developing world, Nairobi’s transportation needs had far outgrown its prevailing capacity, thus calling for a widespread reconfiguration of transport policy. As the case of Kenya shows, and indeed many Chinese cities also show, when thinking about transport improvements for a city, it is not only about the hard infrastructure, such as the roads or the buses; but also the soft infrastructure, such as the institutions, policies and regulations that govern the system, which ultimately determine the success of overall urban connectivity.

The urban authorising environment for transport

Drawing on the framework outlined in this paper, the reforms to Kenya’s transportation system since the mid-2000s can be categorised as follows:

  • Clarifying policy roles: One of Kenya’s biggest challenges for implementing reforms was that institutional responsibilities were poorly distributed between various government bodies involved in policymaking. For example, there was both a Ministry of Infrastructure and a Ministry of Roads that each had responsibilities for setting transport policies and executing their delivery. This often led to confusion about who was in charge, where, and how each Ministry would coordinate their actions. Therefore, in 2007 Parliament passed the Kenya Roads Act (KRA) which explicitly maintained the policy functions with national ministries, but split the execution functions to newly created parastatal agencies such as the Kenyan Urban Roads Authority. Importantly, these agencies were given very clear and specific mandates as well as budgets that were mostly shielded from political influence.
  • Coordinating policy in the surrounding region: Nairobi, like many other fast-growing African cities, has long outgrown the boundaries of the city administration. The geographic footprint now spans Nairobi’s core as well as the four surrounding counties, Machakos, Kajiado, Muranga, and Kiambu. Without adequate metropolitan governance, coordinating and establishing the transportation systems that were needed to span these wider commuter flows was likely to be a major struggle. Therefore in 2015, the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (NaMATA) was established with the mandate to undertake horizontal level planning and coordination of public transport investments across this entire metropolitan area.
  • Setting a long-term investment strategy: In 2008, Kenya launched its Vision 2030, to provide an overall economic strategy for the country over the following 22 years. This vision was then embedded into more localised plans, including the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Masterplan of 2014; notably, the first master plan developed in Nairobi for nearly 40 years. Each of these helped to establish a more coherent planning hierarchy, as well as subsequent increases in financing towards a long-term investment strategy in urban transportation. In the roads sector alone, financing available for new developments increased by 169% between 2008-2018.

Remaining reform challenges

Although these reforms explicitly sought to transform the institutional structure for urban connectivity, they have faced a number of ongoing challenges. Most notably, Kenya’s new 2010 Constitution arrived mid-way through many of these transport reforms, and this has subsequently sought the devolution of functional powers around urban mobility towards newly created county governments. It remains unclear what the relationship is between the parastatals created under the Kenyan Roads Act and the counties, thus perpetuating past confusions around which institutions are responsible for what. Moreover, although the devolution process is on-going, counties still lack capacity, such as the ability to raise sufficient own-source revenue, to actually be able to carry out these assigned mandates sufficiently.

Another issue is that even where institutions like NaMATA have a specific mandate that aligns with the devolution process outlined in the constitution, they are not necessarily able to execute these sufficiently. Although NaMATA was modelled on its relatively successful counterpart in Lagos, the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LaMATA), it does not share the same political support. Notably, NaMATA was created through executive order by the president, rather than by national and local governments, and has thus struggled with support from these areas.  As an institution, its mandate is significant and foundational for the transportation system in Nairobi; however, it has little real authority within the wider transportation sector planning.

Potential Lessons from China

Chinese cities differ significantly from Nairobi and other Kenyan cities in terms of their overall structures, necessitating obvious caution when making comparisons. However, a major similarity between cities like Nairobi and certain counterparts in China, is that each have gone through a very rapid growth process and have thus grappled with the challenge of ensuring investments in connectivity could keep up with the pace of settlement. Arguably, Chinese cities have managed this transition successfully: Shanghai, for example, is now ranked world’s best connected city.

The case study draws a number of lessons from China’s experience. Two elements, however, are particularly noteworthy: firstly, China also went through a significant decentralisation process, however, this process strongly empowered local governments to be able to actually plan, deliver and operate their own transportation systems. To this day, the role of central government remains mostly limited to the provision of strategically important infrastructure such as highways. Secondly, local governments have had the capacity to finance infrastructure, and to do so largely by their own means, through land value capture via the unique leasing system. Together with other reforms this has meant that China has been able to see an impressive expansion of its transportation infrastructure in a relatively short period of time. For example, by the end of 2010 it had 74,000 kms of roads, second only to the United States. Furthermore, in 1999, although China had no high-speed rail networks, by 2010 its 7,400 kms were more than anywhere else in the world.

The lessons from China, with respect to urban transportation are not all positive and therefore Nairobi and other African cities should also take heed and avoid their mistakes. Notably, urban transportation investments in China over-prioritised movement with private vehicles. For example, taxes levied on petrol are approximately only 6% of retail prices, making automobile usage even more favourable than in some of the world’s most car-oriented countries such as the United States. The result has been a number of morbidity and mortality challenges related to transportation: it is estimated that about 600 people are killed and 45,000 injured on China’s roads each day, which is a shocking average of more than 31 vehicle-pedestrian accidents per minute. China also has some of the highest air pollution levels in the world, with vehicle traffic in its three biggest cities, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, accounting for 68-80 per cent of this pollution.

Drawing on the experiences of both countries, it is clear that connectivity in cities has to move far beyond cars, towards thinking about mobility more holistically with respect to mass public transportation as well as non-motorised options. Fortunately, Nairobi’s transport reforms, as evidenced in the master plan or institutions like NaMATA’s mandates, do seem to place at their core the movement of people rather than the movement of private vehicles. Now the focus needs to be to ensure these plans can be implemented, ensuring the investments in soft and hard infrastructure can keep pace with the needs of the city.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.

The first blog on the series explores parallels between Africa and China’s urbanisation trajectories and the second focuses on how to accommodate migrant labour in industrialising cities.


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