Vehicle design will be key to matatu survival


The teachers strike has entered its third week.  KUPPET have taken their winnings and ran, leaving KNUT in the trenches. Civil servants meanwhile have announced their intention to give the government a strike notice.

A search for the keyword “teacher” on the government’s Vision 2030 website turns up 15 results. Clearly, however much grief teachers cause the government, they matter.  Another search on the same website, for the term “bus” finds 4 results, while a search for “matatu”, finds nothing.  Matatus unlike buses, have no place in the developed, resurgent, Kenya of the future, if that document is to be believed. It should worry the matatu industry immensely that policymakers can see a Kenya beyond them.

Let’s get the operators out of the way first. If the bribes police are demanding keep getting bigger, at some point it will be more affordable to repair whatever it is that the police claim to stop matatus for. Matatu crews should also cease dangerous habits like refuelling with the engine running and causing death  by throwing passengers out of moving vehicles, because these exhaust whatever goodwill the public has towards them. In addition to boycotts, it may help for the Matau Welfare Association to create a legal defence fund to discourage petty arrests and reduce the chances of police succeeding with frivolous charges.

Matatus in their current form create as many problems as they solve. Yes, they provide employment, both direct and indirect, in a country where half the labour force cannot find a job. But they do an inefficient job of providing transportation, mainly due to the perception of public transit as a for-profit venture, and how matatus are manufactured and operated. Complaints have been coming  including this one by Magesha Ngwiri. As an aside, If you are interested in the matatu sector, you absolutely have to read Wambururu’s Blog, which is written by a matatu driver.

This country, particularly its larger cities, will need to decide whether the role of buses and matatus is to provide transportation efficiently to the greatest number of people, or to create profit while moving people as an afterthought, because running a proper, responsive public transit service for profit is very difficult indeed.

With the exception of very dense cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong that have well developed rail operations, most public transit authorities either break even or work with a  subsidy from government. The Tube in London and the MTA in New York do not generate profits. Not even the crowded Moscow Metro generates a profit solely from farebox receipts.

Although the transportation authority may not make a profit, connecting millions of workers to jobs and leisure, and reducing the effect of distance on business generates immense economic activity on a regional or even national scale depending on the city. Many local authorities are therefore happy to subsidize transit operations.

Seen in this light, there was nothing much wrong with Kenya Bus even if it did not generate stellar profits. It did what it was supposed to do very well indeed. For details there is a great page on the Kenya Bus website which tells of its decline. A regular, orderly, bus service that carried large numbers of sitting and standing passengers was replaced by inconsistency in fares and timing and varying routes by the hour depending on traffic jam intensity.

Then there is manufacturing. In an accident, injuries can result from sharp edges that should be rounded, protruding pieces of metal that should be made flush, lack of padding and proximity of seating to the door. As matatus grow from 21-seater to 50-seater and beyond, carrying more weight, the wheels they run on remain the same size.

Matatus as they are designed in Kenya reward competitive, or bad, driving over efficiency in carriage. A high ground clearance allows matatus to climb onto the sidewalk and overlap with ease.  The thin, manoeuvrable body able to weave in and out of traffic corresponds to a constricted aisle between seats that limits standing and restricts revenues. Not allowing standing passengers means that matatus never carry large enough numbers to benefit from peak hours. The Michuki Rules, which work on a prudent assumption that buses and matatus will always be dangerously driven, mean that this source of revenue is foreclosed, at least legally.

Contrast this with a public transit bus or train where standing at rush hour effectively doubles the passengers, and therefore the revenues. In such circumstances, the overlapping that a matatu would do in order to squeeze in an extra rush hour trip is just not worth it.

The companies involved in building these matatu bodies, like Banbros, Dodi Autotech , KVM and others, it should be understood, can make better vehicles; many are also in the business of assembling luxury safari vehicles, and buses for companies, schools and government.  Further, the recent decision by Toyota Kenya to appoint Busmark from South Africa to build its HINO bus bodies suggests that foreign competitors may have lessons for our local vehicle manufacturers who have long sold a product aimed at commuters without choices.

To stay in business long term, even before making profits , the matatu industry, both operators and vehicle builders, should be designing vehicles that can carry more commuters in dignity, and running professional operations that are safe and sensitive to development goals in areas such as clean air and accessibility. These new bus designs may not be as effective in a traffic jam as those in service today, but they will give private commuter businesses and locally built buses a fighting chance. The alternative is to lose vehicle orders to foreign companies and passengers to public train and bus services that deliver what people want.


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