Scaling up sustainable transport in East Africa

The Dar es Salaam bus rapid transit system reduced travel times from 2 hours to 45 minutes for a one-way trip. The system carries 200,000 passengers per day and has become a model in the region; Photo: © ITDP
The Dar es Salaam bus rapid transit system reduced travel times from 2 hours to 45 minutes for a one-way trip. The system carries 200,000 passengers per day and has become a model in the region; Photo: © ITDP

Chris Kost from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy speaks about the challenges in the field of transportation in East Africa.

Chris Kost is Africa Program Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a global non-profit organisation working around the world to promote sustainable modes of transport. Mr Kost is now contributing to the Growing Smarter: Sustainable Mobility in East Africa project, which will focus on public transport, walking and cycling as well as parking management.

Mr Kost, you spent three years in East Africa prior to the Growing Smarter project. What can you tell us about transportation in the region?

In most of the large cities in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – the countries we are working in – the majority of commuters are using sustainable modes. They are either going by public transport, walk, or cycle. For a transport planner from Europe or the US, it might look like a dream to have so many people using green modes of transport. But most people use these modes out of necessity. In many cases, walking and cycling come with risks in terms of road safety and polluted air. Public transport is often unreliable and unsafe. Vehicles and stops are crowded. It is not something you can rely on. So, people are upgrading to private vehicles as soon as they have the money.

How does your project tackle the problems of traffic congestion, road safety and air pollution?

Chris Kost, Africa Program Director, ITDP; Photo: © Yannick Haas/ Programme Office of the IKIThe general idea behind the Growing Smarter project is to provide high-quality sustainable transport in all these East African cities and to start looking at how we can scale up transport options across the region. There are individual projects that did really well. Dar es Salaam, for example, implemented an excellent bus rapid transit (BRT) system a couple of years ago that is now carrying 200,000 people a day. It has really changed people’s lives, cutting travel times for a one-way commute from two hours to 45 minutes. However, solutions like that are not being replicated fast enough. The whole idea of this project is to look at how we can foster learning among the cities of the East Africa region. We want to facilitate exchange and make sure that best practice in one city can inspire change elsewhere.

Why did you choose Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as project countries?

All of the capitals among these countries’ capital cities are in the process of planning BRT systems. There is a need to ensure that these systems are high quality and that they are implemented well. There is a lot of interest in sustainable transport in the region. Cities realise that they need to change the way they are planning transport systems, and they recognise the need to strengthen their walking and cycling facilities and to improve their public transport systems. The demand for technical assistance and support is quite high.

Do these efforts and endeavours come solely from the cities or also from national governments?

It works at both levels. In many of the cities, the national government plays a very important role in urban transport planning. That is changing over time. There is a move to devolve more of these functions from the national to the city level. It is work in progress. In some cases national agencies are implementing the BRTs, while in other cases the national agencies play more of a policy-making role, helping to disseminate design standards and secure finance.

What measures and actions are you planning to take for the project? What are your specific goals?

Implementing public transport is one of the key measures that we are going to work on with the cities. This means developing world-class public transport systems structured around high-quality BRT corridors. BRTs are bus-based public transport systems that have dedicated lanes, median stations, level boarding and off-board fare collection. They have all the features of a metro but use buses instead. The cost is much lower, the implementation time is faster, it is more flexible. For the rapidly growing cities of East Africa, BRT is an ideal solution. A city like Nairobi in Kenya needs to install about 100 kilometres of BRT to cover all the main arterial roads and ensure that public transport users are no longer stuck in traffic. That is something that a city can do within a reasonable time frame.

Citizens across east Africa are demanding higher-quality public transport and safer streets. ITDP and UN-Habitat organized an outdoor exhibit during a street fair in downtown Nairobi to gather community feedback and raise awareness about ongoing transport initiatives in the city; Photo: © ITDP

In what ways is the project contributing to the implementation processes?

As part of implementing the BRTs, we want to ensure that the existing paratransit industry is able to take part in the operation of the future BRT systems. We will work with the existing minibus operators to help them form companies and start to operate the BRT systems. This presents a huge opportunity to build local capacity in each city and build on the strengths of the existing industry. It will also help operators to take the steps needed to form competitive companies that are able not only to operate local BRT systems but also to start looking at the opportunities for running public transport in other cities.

Besides implementing BRTs, what else is the project working on?

We are thinking very much about safety and the design of complete streets that come with good-quality footpaths and safe pedestrian crossings that are universally accessible and, on wide streets, come with dedicated cycle tracks. All these things are crucial for making sure that people actually find walking and cycling convenient, safe and comfortable and do not use these options out of necessity.

Next, we have to look at how to manage vehicle use and how to deter drivers from parking their cars on footpaths and cycle tracks. Parking in many cities can end up taking over public space. It is therefore important to control this through proper parking management and charging systems. In this way, the use of public space is controlled and revenue can be generated, which can then be ploughed back into sustainable transport projects

Once we get some of these public transport systems on the ground, we have to think about how we can encourage urban development to happen around them so that more people can live close to where they work or go to school. This means looking at building control and planning regulations and at measures to encourage affordable housing. Right now in a city like Nairobi, more than half of the population lives in informal settlements because of a substantial lack of well-located low-cost housing. You have the choice of either living in a city slum or living far away from the city and having a very long and expensive commute. That’s something that has to be tackled.

For the project, what might be the big challenges and obstacles?

One of the key things that needs to happen to implement these public transport projects is much better institutional integration. There are multiple agencies that each have some role in planning, designing and managing transport systems. They include road agencies and transport ministries, which set the standards and allocate the funding, and city governments, which play a role in managing parking and street space and in building local roads. At present, these actors are not always working together. A key aim of the project is to look at how we can achieve better institutional coordination and ensure that there is a clear vision for delivering sustainable transport.

Stakeholders from road agencies and the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority discuss ways to develop safe, accessible pedestrian crossings along a planned bus rapid transit corridor; Photo: © ITDP

How do you facilitate exchange between the stakeholders?

One of the key elements of this project is holding an annual convention where participants will come from each of the countries to one of the project cities and learn from what’s been done in the host city. The hope is that participants will be able to take some of the host city’s best practices home to their own cities. Government officials will also have the opportunity to attend the MOBILIZE summit, an annual conference that ITDP organises in the city that wins the Sustainable Transport Award.

What is the project’s role in ensuring this exchange of knowledge between the cities?

We are also developing localised knowledge products that draw out the lessons learnt in cities in the region and then share this learning with other cities. Under a different IKI project, we consolidated knowledge about designing footpaths and cycle tracks in the African context and incorporated it into a manual that we use in our design workshops. We organise participatory workshops that give people the chance to plan and design streets or intersections first-hand. In addition, we go on site visits, observe users, talk to people who are using the streets, and experience the conditions that people face every day. When planners and engineers do this, it really changes the way they think. By seeing the reality, they get a much better sense of the real needs.

Is the project approach transferable to other regions?

Absolutely. ITDP has been working in the region for a number of years. We’ve been providing assistance on many of the region’s BRT projects as well as on numerous transport initiatives. This project is a great opportunity to scale up many of the activities that are in progress. It gives us much better capacity to make a real impact in these cities and provide strong technical support. There is also potential to take this beyond East Africa. A lot of the things we are talking about are critical needs in many African cities. We want to look at linkages and at how we communicate the learning from this project to a wider audience. Then we want to start broadening participation in the knowledge-sharing activities, bringing in more countries.

Mr Kost, thank you very much for this interview!

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