Last month’s NTV Business Agenda brought together myriad players in the public transportation industry. Partly because of Wallace Kantai’s lively style, interesting insights percolated on the recent confrontation between the government and matatu operators. The players evidently understood where public transportation fell short in Nairobi, and also showed empathy with the wider needs of the urban community.
A number of solutions were floated. The Minister for Transport suggested dedicated lines for buses, Dennis Kashero of RVR asserted that rail was an investment opportunity as well as a way to meet corporate social responsibility needs, and the Nairobi Town Clerk Mr. Phillip Kisia spoke in support of creating substations from which large buses would ferry passengers around the CBD. Good ideas all.
Mr. Mukabanah, Chairman of the KEPSAH Transport Sector Board, made one of the evening’s most interesting contributions. He described Nairobi’s public transportation system as paratransit, which he panned as informal and prone to illegality, and decried the job losses which externally-assembled 14-seaters cause. This conversation about matatus, he also noted, had left out the 47% of Nairobi residents who walk to work for lack of bus fare.
Mr. Aligula from KIPPRA criticized the government for not having a public transportation framework. He emphasized the futility of expanding roads to ameliorate congestion and noted that buses were necessary even with a commuter rail system. Mr. Graeme Reid added his experiences from Johannesburg, where commuter taxis had filled a gap left by the apartheid government’s neglect of public transportation. He was categorical that development planning must be integrated with transport, and faulted developers in Kenya for not accounting for transportation in their planning.
Notwithstanding all these, it was Mr. Simon Kimutai of the Matatu Welfare Association who cheered me the most. He conceded that a desire to phase out 14-seaters was not unreasonable for Nairobi, even while defending their use in intercity transportation. Going into the show, I expected he and Mr. Mbugua to defend the matatu industry staunchly since they depend on it, but their contribution on the night did them a lot of credit.
It seems to me that they were not, and are not, against the phasing-out of 14-seater matatus in Nairobi. The Minister for Transport, if he has not already done so, should be swallowing up this concession and discussing other sweeteners including financing aimed at easing the transition to larger buses. In return, he should ask for clean combustion, improvements in body design to improve comfort and safety, one-strike-and-you-are-towed traffic violations, heavy fines for refuelling with the engine running, among others.
The only omission from an otherwise high quality panel was a representative from the local matatu manufacturing industry. I am not referring to the firms which create the engine and the chassis, but the local body builders. Some of the best known are Labh Singh Harnam Singh (LSHS), Banbros, Kenya Coach Industries (KCI), DODI Autotech, Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers (KVM), and 2M Autotech.
These are the people who design and build what we know as the matatu, who create those steel seat – frames with sharp edges, the seats at the back where long-legged people just can’t fit and seats above the rear wheel well that leave your feet squashed when you alight. They could have shed light on the opportunities and constraints of delivering efficient, socially responsive public transportation on a matatu platform, what plans they have to use technology towards streamlining customer service and creating more comfortable vehicles, and what they see as the grand vision for matatu transportation in Kenya.
I also sought and missed concrete evidence of steps that the matatu sector is itself taking to make their drivers more law- abiding and their services more regular and consistent. Utter disregard for the law, inconsistent service delivery, and unwillingness to accord commuters any comfort whatsoever persist in Nairobi. Those big buses can’t come fast enough.