Transport in Nairobi is a work-in-progress and has been for many, many years. The city has grown far beyond its initial design.
Traffic in Nairobi is horrible. A walking distance of about an hour could take you hours on the road. For example, I take at least an hour to get to Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) from my home, a distance of 15km.
There are simply too many cars on Nairobi’s roads heading in one direction at the same time. In 2019, Nairobi was ranked the 4th most congested city in the world. The cost on the economy is approximately $1 billion per year.
While the Nairobi Metropolitan Transport Master Plan was devised to tackle this issue, we’re many years away from a traffic-free Nairobi.
The idea is to make various forms of public transport in Nairobi so safe and efficient, you don’t need your car to go to work.
In the meantime, you still have to get around. And in this article, we’ll take a look at how you can do that as best as possible. So let’s buckle up and have a quick look into transport in Nairobi.
Notorious Traffic Hotspots
There are some roads in Nairobi that seem like they’ll always have traffic. This mostly happens on roads that start wide and then lead to narrower roads, leading to bottlenecks.
We’re not including roads within the CBD. That would be all of them. Instead, these are the roads that have the most traffic at almost any time of day. They are worse during peak hours of 7.30 am – 10 am and 5 pm – 7 pm.
The most notoriously jammed roads in Nairobi are:
- Ngong road
- Mombasa road
- Kingara road
- Waiyaki Way
- James Gichuru road
- Limuru road
- Naivasha road
- Argwings Kodhek road
If you’re new to Nairobi but used to transport in other Kenyan regions, taking a bus is your most trusted way to get around. Buses within the CBD are currently at the bus station, Ambassadeur Hotel, the General Post Office (GPO), and Kencom House building.
Three main bus services serve similar routes. These are The Kenya Bus Services – KBS (Blue), City Hoppa (yellow and green), and Double M (purple).
Buses are favourable to matatus even though they aren’t as flexible for several reasons:
- Buses follow a specific route, even with heavy traffic. You are less likely to feel lost or anxious.
- Buses have specific pick-up and drop-off points. This makes any transit planning much easier because the points are likely well known.
- Buses have clear boards at their pickup points advertising the routes and locations they serve.
- Usually, there is a conductor at the door to answer any questions you might have. They will direct you to your right bus if you’re approaching the wrong one.
- Buses use a ticketing system. This reduces your chances of being ripped off.
- Bus prices vary depending on the time of day and how far you’re going. But the prices are constant and usually displayed at the door and within the frame of the bus.
Buses can be frustrating. The lines are often long during peak hours, and you have to be aware of your belongings at all times. They are, however, safer than matatus as you have more room to sit, and they don’t carry above capacity.
Note: if you’re moving to Nairobi from overseas, I suggest using ride-hailing apps to get around at first. Once you understand Nairobi’s layout, you can start using buses.
Nairobi BRT Plan
The Bus Rapid Transit system is a way in which the Government hopes to reduce traffic in Nairobi.
The BRT includes special bus lanes inside major roads, starting with Thika Superhighway. The buses will then pick and drop passengers from newly built stations in the middle of the road. These stations are attached to flyovers for access to the other sides of the road.
With the BRT, Matatus and other privately owned public service vehicles (PSVs) will have limited access to the CBD. They will serve routes not serviced by the BRT, and transport passengers from satellite residential areas to BRT terminals.
Reducing the number of PSVs coming into the CBD will have a massive impact on traffic flow.
However, the locations of the new stations for the BRTs will have a lot of say on how effective the new system will be. They will have to be strategically placed within the CBD, so people don’t have to cross the entire district to get to their destination.
Matatus are privately owned mini-buses operated by a driver and a conductor. The conductor ushers in passengers, collects fares, and relays stops and pick-ups to the driver.
A lot of matatus are heavily decorated. They feature colourful artwork of celebrities, famous teams, and significant events in the world. They also include music and TV screens to entertain their passengers.
3 million of the 4.5 million commuters in Nairobi use matatus, because they service areas of neighbourhoods and the city that buses don’t reach.
The Downside of Matatus
Matatus employ hundreds of thousands of drivers and conductors. While the drivers have licenses, the conductors are usually untrained youth. Many of them are perfectly pleasant. But there are a few who are rude.
Some will outrightly lie about prices and even the route the matatu is taking just to get you to board. Others will change the price while you are already on your way. Unfortunately, there is usually no recourse when they do this.
What’s more, smaller matatus are usually cramped. Be aware of pickpockets.
Matatus are the most common vehicles you’ll find on Nairobi roads where they aren’t banned. As a result, they contribute heavily to the traffic in the city and are the main focus of the government in their effort to reduce traffic.
Soon, matatus will not be allowed into the CBD. Instead, they’ll transport passengers to stations on the outskirts of the city.
- The now open Greenpark terminus will cater to matatus plying Ngong and Langata routes.
- The Fig Tree terminus will cater to matatus from Waiyaki Way, Uhuru Highway, Kipande road and Limuru road.
- Muthurwa terminus will serve matatus from Jogoo road and Lusaka road.
- A terminus near Workshop road will serve matatus from Mombasa road.
Nairobi Matatu Routes
Finding your way around Nairobi using matatus is difficult, even for seasoned Nairobians. The website, Digital Matatus, has maps detailing each matatu route and destination. But if you’re unfamiliar with your destination, you might have a problem figuring them out.
We obviously need an app for this, right? Step in MyRide Africa. The app has a Matatu Map that can guide you on which matatu to take from wherever you are to your destination. The app takes a bit of getting used to, but it is the most helpful tool currently available.
To find matatu routes using MyRide Africa:
- Download the app
- Allow the app has to find your current location (you can either type it in)
- Type in your destination
- Pick from one of the suggested drop-off points
- The app will highlight your selected location. Hold down on the location (the enlarged blue pin below) for a second and the route will appear
- In this example, a single matatu from Odeon in the CBD should get me to Othaya Road in Kileleshwa.
Motorbike Taxis a.k.a. Boda Bodas
Boda Bodas are a quick way of moving when you’re not in the CBD. They are transport motorbikes found at almost all towns and business centres in the country.
Boda Bodas are mostly run independently. You can identify them by their bright colours, drivers wearing safety vets, and an extra helmet on the motorbike.
Boda Bodas are the most flexible form of public transport in the country. They can deliver you from doorstep to doorstep. They are fast and can easily take shortcuts and routes that taxis and buses can’t. They are your best option if you’re running late.
The only place they are not allowed is within the CBD. This is because of the danger they might cause to the densely packed pedestrians. You also have to wear a safety jacket and helmet when riding on one.
The cost of your Boda Boda ride will depend on how far you’re going, and how good you are at negotiating.
In 2009, Uber arrived in Nairobi and changed the way taxis worked in the world. Before then, you either had to have a trusted cab guy’s number on your phone or employed the services of a taxi company.
Ride-hailing apps eased the ability to get a cab in most urban areas. Because the car and the driver were registered with the app company, it made it safer to get into a stranger’s car. The review system also reduced the likelihood of having an uncomfortable or dangerous driver.
However, the widespread use of the apps forced drivers with older cars out of what was their only livelihood. Whatever loyalty they had nurtured with their customers was not enough to defeat the convenience of the apps.
Even when the older cab drivers started using the app, many of them saw a reduction in fares by as much as half the earnings. They had to work longer and with untrusted clients just to make up the difference. Yes, they can choose not to attend to a client based on the client’s review, but that is money lost. Someone else will always take the risk for the money.
Uber is still the most recognised ride-hailing company in the world. They are available in more places in Kenya than other apps. Their food take-out service called UberEats has partnerships with a lot of restaurants and fast-food outlets.
Bolt was founded in 2013 by a high school student. The company aims to provide the safest rides and cheapest rates in Kenya. They also provide food delivery around Nairobi.
PTG Travel has brought together taxi booking for business with modern app technology. They cater mostly to corporate clients but have individual options. In addition, they have events transport, chauffeur drives, and transport sharing.
Hava works like every cab-hailing app, but they claim that you never have to wait more than 3 minutes for a ride. Hava aims to balance the needs of both the drivers and the passengers.
Little’s partnership with Safaricom separates them from the rest of the pack. You have access to unlimited WiFi on your ride. And in Nairobi traffic, this is a huge advantage to have.
Sendy is a delivery service if you need to move items from your business or home. With their app, you can track your package and the expected time of delivery. The items being transported are also insured against loss or damage.
Where to Buy a Motorbike Helmet in Nairobi
If you’re looking for good quality motorbike helmets that comply with international safety standards, head to these shops:
The JKIA-Westlands Highway
The JKIA-Westlands Highway, also known as the Nairobi Expressway, is an elevated dual-carriage road currently under construction. It will stretch from James Gichuru road to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The rapid construction of the road has caused increased traffic along its path. Waiyaki Way is already a busy and congested road on normal days. But with traffic being diverted from the 4-way road to 2-way side roads, it’s a nightmare route to take.
The good news: construction on the Nairobi Expressway is expected to complete in December 2021 and open in early 2022. We only have to bear with it a bit longer.
The expressway is expected to cut travel to the airport, which can take hours in Mombasa road traffic, down to less than 30 minutes. You will have to pay a toll to use the road initially. After that, the money will go to paying off the debt of construction.
The SGR Train
The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is a railway track that runs from Mombasa to Naivasha. The first section, completed in 2017, ran from Mombasa to Nairobi. The extension to Naivasha was completed in 2019. The railway is expected to link with other SGRs in the East African region.
The Madaraka Express is boarded at the terminus station at Syokimau and takes only 5 hours to get to Mombasa from Nairobi.
The Inter-County Train leaves twice daily and makes stops at Athi River, Emaili, Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Voi, Miasenyi, and Mariakani stations.
The SGR passes between Tsavo West and Tsavo East giving its riders previews of two of Kenya’s best national parks.
The SGR Commuter Train
The Nairobi Commuter Rail Service (NCRS) aims to reduce traffic by attracting commuters from public service vehicles. They are modernising existing railway networks around Nairobi and its environs.
In Syokimau and Imara Daima, for example, you can drive from home to the station, park your car and take a train to the CBD.
They also aim to develop a new railway line to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The Nairobi Metropolitan Transport Master Plan
The Nairobi Metropolitan Transport Master Plan is an initiative to improve the transportation infrastructure and options around the city. The plan involves improving and modernising existing transport networks and introducing new mass transit systems. That is the road and rail network, and the BRT system we’ve discussed.
The plan is part of the Nairobi Metro Strategy 2030, which seeks to upgrade Nairobi to a world-class metropolis by 2030.
A lot of effort is being put into reducing the amount of traffic going to the CBD. This centralised location is the cause of most traffic in Nairobi. The more ways there are to bypass it, the easier traffic will be.
There is hope, we can at least say that. But it is up to the people to use the new or improved services once they become available. It will save you time, money and a lot of stress.