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Swarms of cars, trucks plague Kenyan capital

Nairobi was once known as East Africa's gleaming "City in the Sun." These days, however, the Kenyan capital is anything but gleaming.
Image: Downtown Nairobi, background, is seen as traffic is backed up on a busy road
Nairobi's roads have not grown with the times. Bad drivers, overloaded trucks and corrupt traffic cops are making conditions worse.Sayyid Azim / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nairobi was once known as East Africa's gleaming "City in the Sun."

These days, however, the Kenyan capital is anything but gleaming. One of Africa's biggest cities has become a smoggy, gridlocked sea of cars, scaring away investors and preventing Nairobi from becoming a world-class African capital, experts say.

Big cities across Africa suffer maddening congestion, in most cases because they have failed to update road networks built decades ago to serve colonial administrations.

In Nairobi, the population is 4.7 million, up from 350,000 when Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963. The number of private cars in Kenya has ballooned to nearly 935,000, more than half of them in Nairobi alone, according to official figures.

The roads have not grown with the times, however. Bad drivers, overloaded trucks and corrupt traffic police make things worse. There are no subways, elevated trains or bus lanes. The roads are generally two lanes — although aggressive drivers often turn them into four lanes.

It's can be quicker to walk, but that makes driving even more treacherous, as people sprint across highways to reach their destinations.

Kamikaze driving
Minibuses, Nairobi's main form of public transport, career down the wrong side of the street to beat traffic jams, run red lights and screech to a stop for passengers — often in the middle of the road. Fatal crashes are common.

The police are accustomed to kamikaze driving that would cost a driver his license in other countries. Poorly paid, the cops are easily bribed with kitu kidogo — Swahili for "something small."

The need for investment is especially keen these days as Kenya, one of Africa's main tourist meccas, struggles with the aftermath of riots over the disputed presidential election in December that left more than 1,000 people dead. It's estimated that the crisis cost the economy $1 billion.

Meanwhile, the government reckons traffic congestion is costing Kenya $460 million a year due to lost productivity, fuel consumption and pollution.