These streets weren’t made for walking

By Elizabeth Resor

Nairobi is already a city of walkers. So what would it take to make it walkable?

The average Nairobian spends three hours a day commuting, and 80 percent of all commutes involve walking. And yet, it’s obvious that Nairobi roads were built for cars, for taxis, for matatus, for trucks – really, for anything but pedestrians. The take-your-life-in-your-hands quality of Nairobi roads is what unites us all, whether you live in Westlands or Kawangware. Improving Nairobi’s streetscapes would transform almost every experience of the city. Dramatic change is easier than you might think.

When you imagine all of things you would like to change or improve about Nairobi, streets may not seem like the most important place to start . What about housing? What about all those traffic jams? What about the informal areas that don’t get regular services? You might think, we are fine walking on the side of the road, dodging cars across multiple lanes, walking hours in the heat of the afternoon sun or the downpours in April and May; after all, we’ve been doing it for years. But streets are like the veins of a city. They connect every part. Besides people and cars, they guide the flow of water (drainage, piping) and electricity (power lines), and they connect public spaces. Streets are public spaces. And improving them can be a way to improve the city’s environment, the public’s safety, and make those three hours a day more pleasant for every resident.

When it comes to street design, simple changes can have huge impacts.

Start with the obvious, safety.

First, let’s try to keep pedestrians alive. In 2015, 74% of road fatalities in Nairobi were pedestrians, a total of 497 people. The simple fact is that Nairobi roads are perilous for pedestrians. The good news is that it’s possible to fix this. Streetlights and defined sidewalks (so you don’t have to walk in the road) make pedestrians visible and keep them out of the way of vehicles.

Crossing the road is generally the most dangerous part of being a pedestrian. Pedestrian bridges have become the go-to solution for major roads, like Thika Highway and Mombasa Road. But pedestrians bridges are actually not a great solution. In my research on road safety in Nairobi, I found that over 42% of accidents involving a pedestrian happened within 500 meters of a pedestrian bridge. So why were those pedestrians not using the bridge?

This map shows the number of accidents involving a pedestrian that happened within 500 meters of a footbridge. Data are from May-Oct 2015. (Source: Elizabeth Resor, @AccidentsKE)

Ironically, safety is often the reason people will avoid pedestrian bridges. It is easy to be cornered on a bridge, and after dark, the lack of lighting can make it hard to spot a possible threat. Women, in particular, fear that they become visible targets when they use the bridges, especially at night. Bridges with stairs are also not accessible to those who use a wheelchair or have difficulty walking up stairs. Inconvenience can also be a deterrent to using a pedestrian bridge. A person may feel that even a 10 minute walk down to a bridge is not worth it and decide instead to take a chance crossing through the cars.

Urban planners will say there are two ways to fix this. First, much as this might annoy the trucking industry, fast-moving traffic must be kept out of the city center. Second, all major roads that run through central Nairobi – from Thika Hughway to Waiyaki Way – must have safe crossing points where vehicles are compelled to stop and yield to people on foot. (Of course, this system also requires the compliance of pedestrians.)

Celebrate what we are doing well.

It is not my intention to just lambast urban design in Nairobi. In fact, there are many things being done already that are great!

New roads, like the bypasses, are being built with sidewalks and drainage that will keep pedestrians safe and help maintain roads. Sidewalks keep pedestrians out of the way of cars, keeping both pedestrians and drivers safe by reducing accidents and close-calls. Fewer accidents also have the benefit of fewer jams.

Similarly, effective drainage keeps people on foot happy (no one wants to walk in sewage) and prevents the erosion of the soil below the road’s surface, helping to prevent potholes. As any road engineer will tell you, the three enemies of a road are water, water, and water. In addition, by reducing standing water and sewage overflow, proper drainage can also reduce the spread of waterborne diseases, like cholera.

(If potholes are something that rile you up, check out the #whatisaroad project on Twitter, a group of local activists and techies trying to map Nairobi’s potholes.)

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Ring Road Kilimani is a good example of a new road with an improved sidewalk, drainage and lighting. (Credit: Elizabeth Resor)

Streetlighting is another area where we are already seeing progress. The adopt-a-light campaign along major roads has led to a huge increase in street lights in just the past year. Streetlights, of course, have many benefits: they allow drivers to see where they are going, they make it easier for drivers to spot (and avoid hitting) pedestrians, and they make it easier for pedestrians and drivers to spot possible threats, such as criminals, along their routes.

All of these effects build on each other. The more safe it is to walk, the more people will do it – increasing visibility and reducing the spaces that encourage crime. Jane Jacobs, the mother of the “bottom up” movement in urban planning in the United States in the 1950s, called this effect having “eyes on the street.” She explained that this was a crucial difference between neighborhoods where, for example, parents would let their children play in the street in front of their house, and areas where people were mugged in broad daylight.

Remember that a city is still a natural environment.

Sun, rain, air. These are all forces that must be considered – even in an urban area! Depending on the season a sidewalk can be a sauna of direct sunlight for 12 hours a day or a swamp of rain water runoff and sewage overflow. Then there is the issue of fumes from passing vehicles and burning garbage. These are not conditions that make walking pleasant – or especailly healthy.

Trees planted along the road have enormous benefits. And yet in Nairobi, one of the greenest capitals in Africa, we are cutting down trees instead of planting them. As the city has developed, greenery have been replaced by wider roads (ahem, Ngong Road expansion) and big apartment buildings (see Kileleshwa and Lavington circa 1990). What would Wangari Maathai say?! She made Kenya a leader in the movement for sustainable development with a particular emphasis on tree planting and protecting urban green spaces like Uhuru Park and Karura Forest.

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” – Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004) for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” She successfully protested the construction of an office tower in the center of Uhuru Park, arguing that Nairobi deserved green space at its center, just like other great cities in the world. She also participated in a hunger strike for the release of political prisoners during Moi’s presidency. The Green Belt Movement, which she founded, has planted over 47 Million trees worldwide and economically empowered over 900,000 women.

Trees have the benefit of providing shade while simultaneously addressing several of these environmental problems. First, they improve air quality – a concern for pedestrians, but also a broader concern for anyone living in the city limits. Trees can filter out more than 50% of particulates from the air.[1] In Kenya, respiratory infection is the second leading cause of death, only beat by HIV.[2] So yes, this is a big deal.

Second, trees help with drainage by absorbing water and thus reducing the amount that must be handled by the drainage system. Third, trees address the urban heat island effect (see below) by shading paved areas (roads and sidewalks) and thereby reducing the amount of heat the absorb and give off.

Urban Heat Island Effect – Because urban areas have more paved surfaces that absorb the heat of the sun, higher buildings that trap hot air and reduce natural wind flows, and vehicles that give off heat and exhaust, they are hotter on average than areas than rural areas. If you were to map temperatures you would see that cities are ‘heat islands’. The heat island effect can be mitigated by reducing paved surfaces, planting more trees, and reducing vehicle emissions.

Bioswales are another natural solution to urban water management. Bioswales look like a planted garden but actually are a natural water filtering and storing system. By planting certain plants and grasses over a catchment area filled with absorbent soil and gravel, it is possible to create these natural systems that will filter impurities ranging from silt to chemicals out of the water and slow the drainage process to reduce flooding in times of heavy rainfall. Just think of areas that have a tendency to flood a lot – like the dip in James Gichuru or the area around Dagoretti Corner – and imagine instead of all that water (which overflows the sewers and ruins the road) something that looks like a planted garden that catches the excess water and filters and cleans it.

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This diagram shows how a bioswale works. (Source:

No matter how you get your drinking water – piped, bore hole, water truck – it started out in the ground. So, the cleaner the water being absorbed, the cleaner the water we drink.

To recap – less flooding, less stress on sewers, less road deterioration, and cleaner water. Does this sound like a luxury or a necessity?

Finally, don’t be afraid to get creative.

Just because streets have to be functional spaces does not mean that the solutions we propose must only be functional. Around the world there are amazing examples of creative solutions to very common challenges in street design.

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A traffic mime in Bogota, Colombia helps people cross the street safely. (Source:

Use Humor: In Bogota, Colombia, the mayor hired mimes to mock drivers and pedestrians who were breaking traffic laws (like crossing the street not at a crosswalk or stopping your car in the middle of a crosswalk). In Mexico City, one man decided to dress up as a super hero – Peatónito or Pedestrian Man – to help people cross the busy streets.

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A “Barnes Dance” crossing in New York City. (Source: City Lab)

Use Chaos: A Barnes Dance is a four-way crossing for pedestrians at an intersection. It means that vehicles in all directions must stop while the pedestrians cross. It is useful for especially busy intersections and in particular reduces the risk of pedestrians being hit by turning cars.

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A traffic robot in Kinshassa, DRC. You can’t bribe a robot! (Source: Al Jazeera)

Use Oddity: Perhaps the most bizarre (and my personal favorite) solution to the challenges of controlling traffic is the Kinshasa (DRC) traffic robot. There are two of these guys (or girls?) in the city, policing busy roundabouts and directing traffic. Yes, that’s right, they direct traffic by spinning around and indicating which vehicles can go with green lights on the arms and red lights on the body of the robot. There is also a camera in the chest region that records images of traffic violators.

eliz twitterElizabeth Resor is a city planner by training and a pedestrian by choice. She conducted a research project to map road accidents in Nairobi with Ma3Route. The results are available for your exploration at @lizzielansdowne




[2] WHO 2012.

Lead photo credit: ITDP Africa

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