African Expedition

Morgan Faculty member assesses Nairobi's traffic woes

Dr. Celeste Chavis, assistant professor in the Department of Transportation & Urban Infrastructure Studies at Morgan State University, experienced an untamed side of Africa this summer - but not the animals.Taffic sits at a standstill on a street in Nairobi.

Instead, she was studying traffic mobility in Nairobi, Kenya, where most intersections do not have traffic signals and congestion at roundabouts can turn a 20-minute trip into a two-hour one.

"Their traffic is crazy," Dr. Chavis said. "They have very limited street infrastructure."

The main roads in Nairobi, a city of about 3 million people, are home to trucks, cars, minibuses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, and when they back up, there are few alternative routes. In the downtown area, the streets are narrow, and in the outlying areas, many minor roads are unpaved and pushcarts are still in use, not to mention the occasional herd of grazing cattle meandering into a road.

In the city, traffic police officers are stationed at the roundabouts, which are a constant choke point. Dr. Chavis spent six weeks researching ways that police can better control those intersections to improve traffic flow. She used sensor data from cellphones installed on government vehicles and video cameras to create a database of traffic flow, and she is still gathering the final data to complete her research.

"I was trying to see if there was a smarter way of increasing the capacity of the roundabouts by optimizing the time dedicated to each approach," she explained. "I was just looking to see if there was a better way, and there may not be. They have such little infrastructure and so many vehicles."

Her research was funded by IBM Research Africa. Dr. Chavis has long been interested in traffic in Africa; her dissertation was on matatus, the privately owned minibuses that service much of Kenya, and she had conducted a traffic simulation project in Nairobi. Dr. Chavis also had plenty of personal experience with the city's three main roundabouts and the ensuing congestion. 

"Fortunately, we had a driver, so I didn't have to drive, but we never knew how long it would take to get home." One bright spot in her research is that despite the lack of traffic signals, accidents are not as frequent as one would expect though much higher than most developed countries.

"It's amazing there are not more accidents," Dr. Chavis said. "Despite how crazy people drive, there's not as many accidents as you would think."

She hopes to return to Africa, and would like to find funding to take students with her.

"I enjoyed myself - I'd like to go back," she said.