Some Serious Lessons from Thika Highway

Published on 21 December by Jacqueline Klopp

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Last month, amongst much fanfare, the Thika Highway Improvement Project came to an official close, although for another year the contractors will be liable for any needed changes. Thus it is timely to reflect on how people will come to terms with this new infrastructure that can allow for extremely high speeds in densely populated areas along the Nairobi-Thika Corridor. It might also be time to look more systematically at what this project can teach us for other ongoing or new highway projects such as the proposed World Bank-funded elevated Uhuru highway and the African Development Bank funded transformation of Outer Ring Road. It is time to ask ourselves, what are the broader implications of highway building for the Nairobi Metropolitan Region as a whole?

In a forum on November 20 at the University of Nairobi, academics, civil society and some government officials came together to review three recent studies on the social, environmental and engineering dimensions of the new highway. A portion of this meeting can be viewed online along with a previous forum hosted by the Kenya Alliance of Residents Association . What is clear is that a lot more public consultation, independent research and monitoring needs to take place on these large-scale projects that have huge impacts on the city region and on public coffers. One issue that came up was that, despite the right to information enshrined in Article 35 of the new Constitution, many of the researchers had difficulty in actually obtaining key information including the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments and the actual design plans. KARA also raised concerns about the quality of the public consultation and communication throughout the project, a point reflected in their report available online (

Poor road design is partially caused by a lack of citizen engagement and feedback including from independent experts within local academic institutions. This combined with poor regulation leads to frightening numbers of road accidents, raising the negative costs of the highway (road accidents are now one of Kenya’s top public health issues). State of the art highway engineering involves “context dependent design and solutions” where engineers work with and consider all people affected by a project, not just drivers of vehicles but pedestrians, school children, cattle herders, business people, transport operators.  Context dependent design ensures that a highway plan takes into account settlements, transport hubs, important economic assets and how people move during the course of the day. Also safety audits during highway construction should be legally mandated and conducted by independent experts. As a number of participants noted during the 20 November forum, this requires a re-training of engineers and a re-fashioning of process around road building as well as institutional reform.

When it comes to the Thika Highway Improvement Project a number of problems arose because of a closed process of hiring consultants who employed a conventional, car-centric approach to highway construction. They also seemed to shy away from opening the design plans and process to adequate public scrutiny. This resulted initially in a very dangerous road. In the last year, the newly constructed Thika highway had to be significantly retrofitted under pressure from the African Development Bank and according to a report by engineers at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), may need additional changes.   The government’s obvious failure to take road safety seriously was reflected in the meager 12 footbridges that were planned across a span of 50.4 km of road cutting through highly populated cities and towns such as Nairobi and Ruiru. They were also not properly placed and did not link up to places where large numbers of people are likely to cross. Only after pressure, the Ministry of Roads has now agreed to 18, still a shockingly low number.

What will also happen, besides the deaths of people trying to run across the road at various points, is what happens in every place where a large highway cuts through a community, isolating one side from another. As Prof. Gariy from the JKUAT pointed out during the November forum, high speed category A highways are really not made for such built up areas like the Thika corridor. Because proper land controls are not in place, land speculation will mean an increase in the population growth along the highway which in turn, without adequate public transit, will lead to more congestion. It was Jane Jacobs in her famous book the Death and Life of American Cities who noted that expanding highways increases traffic and hence traffic congestion eventually.

Of course, as Senior Infrastructure Specialist for the African Development Bank George Makajuma noted at the forum (and it was to his immense credit that he has been very open and engaged), the traffic congestion will only improve with proper mass transit (bus, matatu, train service, walking and bicycle paths) and a better road network. This raises the question of why build massive highways before you start working on other needed changes in a careful and systematic way? And why if the same consulting firm that did the engineering designs for the highway and also had a contract to do the mass rapid transit study, were the two not linked? The engineering analysis presented at the forum showed that like safety, non-motorized transit, was an afterthought of the government and there was little connection between highway design and matatu, bus and train stops. This reflects the general lack of engagement by the project with key actors in the transport sector including public transportation operators.  Yet, a high quality public urban transportation system is a fundamental component to any “world class” city.

The plans for improving the Nairobi regional road network are under way but the truth is no integration of land use and transportation planning is occurring; if the current literature on the topic is correct, a failure to address this bigger problem before building highways, will lead to an expensive mess in one of East Africa’s most prized cities and regions. For example, there was a plan hatched somewhere to build a Greater Southern Bypass on the Southern end of the Nairobi National Park – a choice that would negatively impact tourism that boosts the economy and employment in the region, and the ecology and environment of the city. Now there is an idea to build an elevated highway along the current Uhuru highway. As architect Eric Kagada notes, “elevated highways become ’Chinese Walls that divide urban communities and create unpleasant and poorly kept environments. An elevated highway creates a virtual barrier which most residents below it will not cross.”

In truth, in many places including the United States, Europe and even China, planners and transport specialists are rethinking locating highways in the central core of the city. Many cities like New Haven are tearing down city center highways at great cost. Which brings me to the eight-lane strip of Uhuru highway that now severs the lovely University of Nairobi main campus from the center of the city and creates a hazard in crossing from one side to another: again, it seems neither the city nor the university were seriously involved in designing this stretch of highway. I predict that in the future this part of the highway will need to be torn up and redesigned to allow a more practical and safe circulation for both cars and people. Also no one travelling this stretch in a car can seriously entertain travelling at high speeds in the middle of the city.

Highways are wonderful symbols of modernity and power especially for a social class with cars. I have to admit Thika Highway is an impressive piece of infrastructure to travel on and even to just look at these days. Nevertheless, what we have learned, not only from the Thika highway project but also from examples across the world, is that highways do not belong in the core of a “world class” city (the bypasses, of course, make a lot of sense). Instead, Nairobi will need world class and cutting edge engineering, planning, and public transportation institutions to regulate and open up the process of how the city and region develop.  Since Nairobi’s transportation infrastructure will determine the growth of the city far into the future, it is time to work on first things first and avoid dangerous and potentially costly mistakes of large-scale highway projects in cities. In the end, not only will these highways create new problems, but they will also ultimately fail to fix the traffic problems they were designed to solve.

Dr. Jacqueline Klopp is Associate Research Scholar of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD).