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Top 12 reasons for traffic in Kampala….

April 13, 2015

I sit in traffic in Kampala on average for about 5 hours a week. Stationary. That’s not 5 hours a week driving, but sitting there, engine off, going nowhere. I consider myself quite an expert therefore on Kampala traffic. I have studied it closely, cursed it relentlessly, and thought about this blog for a long time:

blog 2 - traffic

So, here, are (in my opinion) the top 12 reasons for traffic in Kampala. In no particular order:

1. Preposterous speed bumps: If you ever watched the ‘Top Gear Special’ set in Uganda a few years back, this is one thing they focussed on. We seem to have some incredibly steep and sheer speed bumps in Kampala. There’s one road I know where an otherwise free-flowing section gets churned up for 20-30 minutes every morning solely (from what I can tell) because of a single speed bump, poorly and hurriedly constructed, which means everyone has to go down to about 1mph to get over it. Low-chassis cars frequently emit a grim scraping noise as they proceed over it! I’m surprised regular users of that road haven’t attacked it with a sledgehammer yet.

2. Traffic cops. I’m not as big a critic of the hundreds and hundreds of white-uniformed traffic cops on Uganda’s streets as some are. They sit at junctions and control with hand-movements and whistles who goes and who stays. They are some of the toughest people I’ve met here and I’ve learnt quickly that it never pays to cross them. They also do a wonderful job at keeping their uniforms pristinely white even in the choking dusty smog of Kampala life. There’s one junction on my school route where their presence normally means the difference between a 15min wait and a 45 minute wait. However there’s another junction later on which ran superbly in 2014 without any help. Now they’ve posted traffic cops there to control it, and it’s turned it into a quagmire which can often tailback for half an hour. I’m always tempted to ask them to back off when I drive past them there, but I’ve learnt, like everyone else, not to mess with these people…life only gets harder if you fall out with them.

3. Rain, and poor drainage. I know of several roads in Kampala which were built as 2-lane roads (i.e. two cars going opposite directions passing without a problem) but which have had the edges collapse and erode so significantly in heavy rains that they have become single-lane tracks (most roads here were built with open-air storm drains on either side, but many now have become so full of dust and rubbish that they have essentially disappeared which means excess rainwater destroys often poorly-constructed tarmac). This obviously slow down the cars enormously as one side has to wait for another to pass before they get their chance. NEVER expect anyone on the other side to give way out of kindness. You will wait 15 minutes unless you are willing to force the matter and pull out into the tiniest space and transfer the ball into your court. You can almost hear the applause of the people in the cars behind you, and feel the curses of the people on the other side as you take the upper-hand.

4. Lorries. I think, of all the things on my list, this one infuriates me the most. Kampala is absolute chock-full with extremely old, extremely decrepit lorries that are not even close to being road-worthy, which are grotesquely overloaded, and which clearly haven’t had a service in many years. Most cannot drive above 30kph, reducing to 10kph up a mild incline, and sometimes 3-4 kph on a steeper hill (of which Kampala has many). Normally they belch out thick, noxious, foul-smelling smoke that goes straight into your open-windows as the car behind, thus leaving you with the option of a car full of poison or a car with windows up and a temperature of 55degC (no joke). When you eventually get past one, you’ll almost certainly meet another within a minute and it starts again. I’m getting stressed even writing about these monsters, so I’ll stop there.

5. Queue-cutters. Because there are almost no pavements in Kampala, the side of the road is just a dusty area used by pedestrians, cyclists, motorbike-riders, and minibus taxis to pick and drop passengers. However if there is a queue of traffic on the road, you can guarantee that very quickly a mass of cars will storm past you sitting along these side-paths. They then, as they reach the junction, poke their nose in to the tiniest gap (sometimes just 20-30cm between you and the car in front). I get very grumpy at these people, and battle ferociously not to let them in. I believe strongly that if everyone made life very hard for them they’d have to stop, but not everyone is as annoyingly stubborn as I clearly am, and it’s probably to their credit. My most embarrassing moment in Uganda was when I battled with a car to prevent them from sneaking in after it raced past ten of cars behind me sitting in traffic. Because car windows are always open here I went to talk to the driver to express my views on their driving, only to find it was someone we knew well from our church. I don’t know who was more embarrassed. We’ve neither of us ever mentioned it once since.

6. Pot-holes. The Beatles famously once sang once of 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Times that by ten surely for Kampala. Things are improving and the authorities are trying to sort it out and are investing money accordingly, but a serious pot-hole can still be there for a year or more and cause havoc in an other-wise free-flowing road, partly because cars slow down to 1-2kph to get over it, and partly because they inevitably swerve onto the other side of the road to avoid it, thereby causing both sides to jam up.

7. Cars! Kampala is incredibly wealthy compared to the rest of the country…even compared to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa to be honest. The rate of development is staggering, and a testimony to the remarkable resolve, enterprise, and financial ‘savvyness’ of the rapidly expanding Kampala middle-classes. Apparently there are an extra 200 cars a week added to Kampala roads. Net increase. That may not sound like much, but it’s over 50,000 new cars in the net 5 years, presumably almost all being driven every morning, added to a road-network that already feels saturated. Although we must celebrate this increase in wealth and what it means for Uganda’s future, you can imagine what it does to the morning commute!

8. Road-patterns. The best way to explain it is like this: UK urban roads are set-up like a spider-web. There are numerous ways from A to B. If you are in one place there will be a direct route there, but also several ‘rat-runs’- side-roads that you can weave around. Even if you don’t know where you are you can be guaranteed that, with a half-decent spatial awareness, that you’ll emerge somewhere near your destination. The traffic therefore disseminates and fluidly adapts to the gravity of the jams of the day, equalising out eventually across the road network. Kampala doesn’t work like that. Not a bit. The road network here is not so much like a spider-web but like a tree. If you turn off the main branches you won’t meet another one…you’ll just travel along smaller and smaller ‘twigs’ which eventually just peter out into nothing. There are precious few rat-runs in Kampala. Now in fairness the reason for that is not simply poor-design. It’s mainly because Kampala is built on tens of hills with wetlands (swampy flood areas) in between. It is extremely expensive and extremely environmentally-damaging to build on these wetlands, and so it becomes very difficult to connect all the city’s roads up to one another.

9. Bodas: To be honest, bodas in Kampala need a whole blog post to themselves. They are remarkable. Simply, they are motorbikes with riders that you can hire to take you around Kampala. They’re often used to transport stuff around too. I’ve seen a double bed on the back of a boda, a motorbike, and amazingly, I saw a picture once of a live, fully-grown cow on the back of a boda. Awesome. There are estimated to be over 80,000 bodas operating in Kampala (an extraordinary statistic when you think about it) and although you may think these guys surely reduce congestion (they certainly don’t sit in traffic, choosing instead to weave around it!) I’m not sure that’s true. They buzz around every single road in the city with little regard for their own, or anyone else’s, safety. They cut you up, turn suddenly, and generally behave erratically and unpredictably. You’re always on high alert for them. I’m convinced they slow everything down.

blog 3 - bodas

10. Poor driving discipline. This one is key. I hinted at it with the ‘queue-jumpers’ point above, but it’s more than that. At junctions that should work well (like a simple roundabout, for example) everything grinds down because many, many drivers do not want to follow basic traffic rules that would make jams less for them and everyone else. It’s the old problem, but without CCTV or police on the lookout, most get away with it scot-free. Recently at a simple T-junction the actions of a few selfish drivers cost us all about 30 mins of jam because by trying to cut it front, go round, poke in etc. they had blocked each other off in a way that could only be resolved by ten or twenty cars reversing to give them space to untangle the mess they’d got themselves in. It was chaos, and so easily avoidable. I was not amused. This is repeated tens of times a day across the city. The worst offenders on this front of the thousands of white minibuses that operate across the city as the main method of affordable transport for most. Again, these guys deserve a whole blog pot to themselves at one point.

11. No other way! There are no trains in Kampala (there is one train-line [single-track – only one train in one direction at a time] across one side of the city which the authorities are eventually planning to open as a passenger line), no double-decker buses, no tubes. The roads are the only way to move.

12. Crashes and breakdowns: The general chaos of the roads results in a lot of crashed. The terrible state of many cars and especially lorries results in many break-downs. When this happens 200 times a day across a relatively small city (as capitals go) it results in only one thing!
You get the idea. Things are bad. And getting worse. My school commute (identical route at the identical time) has increased from 45 minutes on average to 1h15m on average in under a year. The trajectory is terrifying to speak from a purely selfish, jam-hating perspective. (yes yes I DO know I, sitting in a car, am part of the problem with regards to point number 7 above). Massive investment is needed in the road network here or investment and development in Kampala is going to tail-off very rapidly. If people can’t move around in a city, it dies quickly. This is partly what is behind the World Bank’s warning that Kampala is going to turn into a ‘mega-slum’ without significant change. The same World Bank report (released recently) also predicted that Kampala will grow from 3.5million people to 10 million people in the next decade. Almost triple in size, in just 10 years. Think about that for a moment. It’s astonishing.

blog 1 - matatus

I feel at this point I should also be positive. There are some very smart people in KCCA (the Kampala city authority in charge of roads here) who do a superb a job and are trying hard to sort this out. These are serious people often doing a good job in awful circumstances (see also traffic cops). There are no simple solutions to this problem although, I must admit, my spirits aren’t raised too much when I see that the main focus at the moment seems to be on a plan to build cable-cars across Kampala (http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/655369-cabinet-approves-cable-cars-for-kampala.html) Maybe I’m overly-pessimistic, but this to me doesn’t seem to be the answer!

However I also know that Uganda as a country is incredibly resourceful, remarkably patient, and has endured suffering that would have crippled most nations a long time back and is emerging from that to shine. I really want to believe that somehow Kampala in 10 years will be a functioning city, full of incoming investment, growing sustainably. But the city needs to wake up and make massive changes now to avoid a genuine collapse in the years to come.
The alternative, and the current trajectory – a capital city in Sub-Saharan Africa that doesn’t work, is not going to be good for national development at all. Nor my blood pressure…

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4 Comments
  1. Richard Bray permalink

    Chris – you have our deepest sympathy with your crazy commute. Just a question (perhaps after you’ve written your posts on bodas and mini-vans!): how do you reflect theologically on the problems and solutions? Maybe a question to set your students?!!

  2. Greetings. I stay in Kampala and have felt your frustration with traffic. I have often thought about why this is so. My conclusion is that in African Traditional Religion, which is animism, the spirits are capricious and so one can’t develop expectations and so one is forced to get what they can when they can. Thus the drivers don’t expect laws and courteousness to work well because that is not how life works. At first I thought they should be better than the US/West because Ugandans are more communal and less individual. But that dynamic isn’t in play in traffic, obviously. So I think that the West’s attitude towards traffic is because of the Judeo-Christian influence of an orderly God who is dependable and thus we can have laws to govern the roads and expect them to work. That is my thought. But it doesn’t make it any better when the 10th taxi squeezes in and jumps ahead of me at a light.

    • Richard Bray permalink

      missionsedge – that’s really helpful – thank you!

    • Susan Tompson permalink

      Thanks missionsedge for your thoughts!!!!!

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