Challenges, Info, Tips, Getting Around, Safety & Driving in Nairobi: Visit Kenya
10 Unique Things About Driving in Nairobi
Most visitors to Kenya arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) at the southern edge of Nairobi. From the airport, it is a short 17 kms hop north to the City on one of Nairobi’s busiest trunk roads, A104 Nairobi-Mombasa Road. Any visitor to Kenya who has read a thing or two about Nairobi might be aware that driving here is a process fraught with risk. The dangers of callousness and the bewildering variety of dangers can worry and confuse even the experienced motorist. The roads in Nairobi are noisier and busier in ways never seen before. The uptake of vehicles as the primary mode of travel in Nairobi has overtaken its infrastructure growth. The same factors that make driving in Nairobi hectic make driving elsewhere in Kenya equally hazardous; at least from an outsider’s perspective. Even so, there is no such thing as a perfect driving system in any city. The road traffic conditions, and the governing systems, through chance or temporary circumstances, vary in challenges. Every country has its own set of factors that partly explain the differences in driving, and on Nairobi’s roads it’s exhilaration and chaos. This, of course, implies spending more time in traffic, and a lot more time to observe the ‘attitudes and behaviors’ of Nairobi’s drivers.
1. Many Shades of Tint
Thankfully, this part of the world sees more sunshine than most countries. With the equator cutting across Kenya, east to west, the sun is almost always up high. Naturally, one would expect a reasonable interest in vehicle window tinting as a way of reducing light transmission, but, perhaps, not on the considerable scale seen in Nairobi. Car window tinting is much sought-after, and on average seven of every ten cars in Nairobi spot a form of tinting. Car window tinting in Nairobi is all pervading, from the rickety Toyota, superclass AMG, to the top-end Range Rover. The lack of specific laws about the degree of visible light transmittance means many variations of tints, imaginative and extreme. On the extreme, dark tinting makes it difficult to make out drivers or occupants even in the midday brightness of the African sun. Several car brands offer factory tint but by far the most popular in Nairobi is an after-factory tinting which for the hard-pressed, cash-strapped is godsend. The odd thing about car window tinting in Nairobi is that it seems to have very little to do with glare and about everything to do with privacy. And when the windows crack, they only go as far as the top of the head.
2. This is Toyota Country
As a comparatively cheaper brand, Toyota has fulfilled many people’s desire for a personal vehicle worldwide. The unwritten slogan about Toyota’s being simple cars is also largely responsible for its massive uptake in Nairobi, and generally speaking in Kenya. The simplicity of the Toyota is almost annoying, and really all you’ve got to know is how to drive. On the upside, to learn one Toyota is to learn all Toyotas. Of course, the fact that Toyotas’ use less fuel has its influence too. Many outsiders who find Toyota unfathomable because it does not bear any of the tell-tale signs of a successful enterprise should be aware that Toyota is on its way to become the largest car manufacturer in the world. In 2017, Toyota made 11 million cars. Not too long ago in Nairobi it used to be the car in-front of you was always a Toyota. Not so much now, car varieties have swelled. Having said that, seven of ten cars at almost any given place in Nairobi will be Toyotas’.
3. Matatu Rule the Roads
Everyday is halloween on the roads of Nairobi, thanks to the infamous matatu. Most of them wear unique ‘masks’. Then drive around like crazy. By the same token, the roads of Nairobi are rife with bullying. The antagonist, respectably, being the matatu; small public service buses. They exist to channel commuters from different points, traditionally from the estates to the city. But matatu do not do it with the prudence you would expect: “They wind through traffic like speed demons with a death wish, brakes screeching as they overtake in hairpin maneuvers while cursing other motorists as their touts menacingly thump the sides of slower cars. Their tyre axles make creaking sounds as they thud into gaping potholes and bump their mechanical manhoods on to the pedestrian walkways. For the Nairobi matatus, any path is a highway,” – Munene Kilongi.
4. Graffiti in Motion
Their names may seem to conjure images of car racing, but matatu, the primary public transportation in Nairobi, take a victory lap when it comes to imaginative and innovative trim and decorative designs. Nairobi’s reply to the jeepneys in the Philippines, the songthaews in Laos, the chicken buses in Central America, the trolley buses in Russia and the chiva expresses in Ecuador is audacious. The graffiti affected by the matatus of Nairobi is one of the most distinct in Africa, and indeed the world over. There are few other places you can spot mock-ups of Air Force One, Smoke City, Cash Money Records, Need 4 Speed Most Wanted, Assasin, Barcelona FC, Manchester United FC and Arafat alongside each other; these being some notable matutu graffiti. The despisers of the graffiti culture consider this chaotic artwork a reflection of the aggressive invasiveness of the matatus. The supporters, on the other hand, say there is something witty and original about the concept. Some say that the graffiti portrays Kenya’s outward looking quality. The underlying fact is that graffiti is good for business. Call it competitive advantage or not, but seven of ten matatus spot an original graffiti, often something or someone influential. Other fundamentals such as a business friendly atmosphere, supportive leaders and a go-great-guns urban culture in Nairobi contribute to the city’s matatu graffiti culture. Meanwhile, a great deal of companies specialising in matatu graffiti have expanded in the city to tap an eager liveware, helping grow the craft in Nairobi. The result is a unique culture.
5. Don’t Drive in Downtown Nairobi
If you have the choice as a visitor to Kenya, then, don’t drive in Nairobi. If you must, the best advice given to the visitor to Kenya on how to cope with the road traffic conditions is to expect anything, depend on nothing. Howbeit, Kenya’s roads are not as dangerous as outsiders tend to portray them – they just take a little getting used to. Still and all, if yourself take into consideration that the last masterplan of Nairobi was prepared in 1948, and that by 1973 a City Council report had indicated that the city’s transport system is not well planned and integrated, Nairobi was always a prime candidate for Andrew Younghusband’s “Don’t Drive Here – Nairobi” on Nat Geo. By and large, driving in Nairobi is a bumper-to-bumper affair at peaks hours (8:00 am and 5:00 pm) and nowhere is the consensus greater and the craze as profound as in downtown of Nairobi. It’s hard to imagine of any other place in Kenya that is as busy as Downtown. The importance of downtown Nairobi as a commuter interchange cannot be underplayed as the journey for every inbound and outbound traveler, to and from every corner of Kenya, as well as local commuters with exception of a few routes west and south of Nairobi begins or ends in Downtown Nairobi. The result of is a massive, endless congregation throughout the day. The disregard for human life here is distressing. There is practically no separation of traffic, pedestrians, hand drawn carts and boda-boda and the value for safety is dismal.
6. About Not Keeping Left in Nairobi
It’s never quite apparent unless you are in a hurry that it becomes obvious that keeping left unless you are overtaking is a motoring rule seven out of ten drivers in Nairobi completely disregard. On many roads in Nairobi, with a speed limit of more than 80 km/h, where there are familiar speed signs “Keep Left Unless Overtaking” and road markings, some in the right place, some not maintained, most being flagrantly disregarded, lies a bewildering reality for many visitors to Kenya. It is easy to assume that on roads of two or more lanes where the speed limit is greater than 80 km/h that motorists would keep off the right-hand lane; that is unless they are overtaking, turning right, avoiding an obstacle, driving in congested traffic or are otherwise instructed by road signs. What this disregard to keeping left has degenerated to is erratic overtaking, poor lane merging and an overuse of the horn. The complacency for observing this simple rule may be the hangover effects of Nairobi’s noted traffic jams or lack of its perceived value.
7. Nairobi’s Boys in Blue
The effectiveness of police enforcement of traffic laws depends critically on the attitudes of the driving community as well as that of the police themselves. This means that it is important to know what drivers think about general issues such as road safety, enforcement and traffic laws, and even what they think about particular issues such as speeding, bribery and drink-driving. Be that as may be, the system is nowhere near perfect on the roads of Nairobi that has a few breaks and loopholes in the system. There is a general ethos of impunity among traffic officers in Kenya. The outcome is that seven of ten drivers in Nairobi are willing to offer a bribe, often even before being asked for one. This is how things need to be done. It’s a catch 22! As no private motorist wants to be on the receiving end of the “long arm of the law” which may land you in difficult, lengthy and expensive processes, with simple solutions taking almost a whole day to resolve. The police on the roads of Nairobi usually exercise the greatest good sense in their interpretation of the law, but sometimes enforce the letter of the law with no consideration for extenuating circumstances. Motorists on the roads of Nairobi have, in responding to the boys in blue, developed their own sense of touch and judgement in their dealing with them, typically using courtesy and good humour as the general pitch. It is not an exaggeration to say that if you make a policeman on the roads of Nairobi angry he will throw the book at you on a minor formality, while if you make him laugh he may wave you happily on.
8. A Case of the Rainy Mondays
Whenever unexpected rain strikes Nairobi City and its environs, as it does every so often, and comically just before rush hour, the motorists and pundits blame the traffic policemen for the resulting traffic jam. These claims are never really that satisfying, and often end up sounding like a simplistic way of saying, “we don’t really have an idea why rain causes so much traffic snarl-ups on the roads of Nairobi”. Arguably the most recent example of this phenomenon at its rifest was in May 2018, when hundreds of motorists spend the night in traffic, many half submerged, after a two-hour downpour during rush hour. In the same way, seven out of every ten private car owners in Nairobi will openly admit to having spend at least five extra hours in traffic as a result of snarl-ups “caused” by rain. And even when such admission is not forthcoming, the impediments are easily observable. Each step taken by authorities over the past two decades designed to prop up road safety in Kenya with emphasis on creating a proper drainage system have not yielded much, and are not likely to change soon. You could say it’s all too predictably that when it rains in Nairobi traffic will surely come to a complete halt. And the situation could go on for hours. Of course rain inevitably causes snarl-ups in many countries, but nowhere near the scale seen in Nairobi.
9. A Legend Among the Roads in Nairobi
Uhuru Highway, that section of the A104 Mombasa-Kampala Road passing over the western edge of the central business district for 5 kms, from Nyayo Stadium to Chiromo Interchange near the National Museum of Kenya, takes the crown as the most important road in Nairobi in boosting the efficiency of traffic flow. The road, which delivers motorists from the east, south and west areas of the county into the central business district is a lesson on the looming traffic crises Nairobi is facing due to a lionized thriving infrastructure boom over an already developed urban space. If something peculiar happens along its length, at any given time of day – which makes many a motorist in Nairobi very nervous – the results are catastrophic. A crises! One proposed remedy to unclog this road was the construction of two loops around the city that bypass it, for the motorist not intending to enter the central business district. It is easy for outsiders to admire the Nairobi National Park, perhaps because it is the only park in the world in a city. It is a charming place to visit, but to get there requires in most cases using Uhuru Highway at some point. The same applies to most visitors to Kenya. The case for the overpass roadway over Uhuru Highway and the adjoining section of Mombasa Road up until Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is not proven yet. Critics of the 50 bn., road say its results are hard to interpret, partly because of Kenya’s pace of economic expansion and the role of Nairobi as the regional hub.
10. Contagious Hooting
Kenya’s fast-growing economy has brought with it slow moving cars. Inching through the crowded streets of Nairobi brings both exhilaration and frustration. Nairobi’s graffiti’d matatus, battered buses, boda-bodas and personal vehicles all somehow manage to creep forward, and its motorists, skilled at bribes and obviously not keeping left, are also masters of furious hooting. One of the most curious peculiarities on the roads of Nairobi is that of the matatu hooting while approaching every bus terminus on the highways; perhaps to intimidate other matatu, perhaps as competitive advantage, perhaps to woo potential riders, or even just their invasiveness. The bizarre way matutu drive in Nairobi also leaves a trail of ferocious hooting especially from the small-smart-cars, who do it more from flight that fight. The roads of Nairobi are filled with hooting and honking.
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