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The Intractable Traffic Jams of Developing Nations

It takes hours to drive into the center in many developing nations' cities. Can the problem be solved? Not easily.

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In Nairobi, Kenya, 70 percent of the city relies on buses, via the extensive network of privately operated semi-formal mini-buses called "matatus," seen here beneath the city's elevated freeway. (Scott Beyer)
This is the second of two articles on traffic congestion in the Global South. Read the first article here.

Cities in the developing world suffer — as I’m finding out firsthand during my 18-month Global South tour — from a traffic paradox. They seemingly have the recipe for ending gridlock: low car ownership, high transit and pedestrian commute rates, roads with surprisingly good throughput, and high population densities. Yet traffic is often worse than in many First World cities. So what gives?

In last month’s column, I focused on one element of road engineering that the city of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, does well. Its roads, devoid of many traffic lights, signs and rules, are free-flowing networks where modes mix. While it’s not always safe for pedestrians, road space is maximized. It's one small factor in alleviating traffic in a city with one-way average commute times of nearly an hour. But Nairobi’s larger congestion problem goes beyond how traffic flows at any one intersection. It has to do with deep geospatial dilemmas common to developing-world cities.

First, let's analyze what Nairobi has going for it. Private cars make up a small share of travel — just 15 percent of households own cars. A full 70 percent of the city relies on buses, via the extensive network of privately operated semi-formal mini-buses called "matatus." Many commuters walk.

Other ride-sharing services, including Uber and motorbike taxis, are common in Nairobi. As a result, wait times for transit are short, and service is cheap — often well under $1. Lastly, there are larger buses run by public and private operators, along with regional commuter rail.

Nairobi fits many urbanist bona fides, as a dense, transit-rich city. Yet it’s the fourth most congested on Earth, with 2-hour-plus super commutes common. A trip of six miles that takes 40 minutes or less in many other dense cities can take an hour and 18 minutes in Nairobi.

Traffic’s also a problem in other Global South cities that have even more organized systems. Bogota, famous for its bus rapid transit, has Latin America’s worst congestion. Mumbai, in India, famously has high rail ridership but comparable congestion. And wealthier Global South cities with extensive, reliable, high-ridership service, such as Hong Kong, also make most-congested lists.

So again, why the paradox? It may be that some urbanist assumptions about density and traffic are wrong.

Sprawling American metros like Phoenix and Houston epitomize to urbanists the congestion of car-oriented U.S. urbanism. But their one-way commute times are around the U.S. average of just under half an hour, and much lower than Global South cities. Most households own cars, but the metros are polycentric, meaning traffic spreads out more as people commute to dozens of separate job centers.

Global South cities are not only denser, but are focused on centers that contain a higher share of jobs. Life in Nairobi is light years from the “remote work” economy of America’s superstar cities; thousands of sole proprietors instead migrate downtown each morning to hawk things on the street. Some Global South cities, from Guatemala City to Lagos to Nairobi itself, are trying to reverse this hub-and-spoke arrangement and promote polycentrism.

There are other factors in Nairobi’s congestion beyond its spatial layout. The same “no rules” spirit that improves throughput at some locations yields illegal parking, accidents and blocked intersections. Roads are often in disrepair and needing closure for maintenance.

Still, spatial dynamics are the bigger point — when lots of people cram into one neighborhood, there will be more friction than if they were spread across many hubs. The use of shared vehicles alleviates things somewhat, but the problem is inherent in dense settlement.

This isn’t to suggest that Kenyan officials should try making Nairobi polycentric. That has its own inefficiencies — even for America — and would be unworkable in a $2,000-GDP-per-capita nation where most people can’t afford cars.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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