Tag Archives: Matatu

Matatu sector should show leadership

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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.

Matatus should look at themselves

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When the new Konza Technology City gets built, will public transportation be based on matatus? I would have to say ‘yes’.  Yes, despite the ubiquitous campaign heralding a Silicon Savannah with world-class amenities. Yes, despite Mugo Kibati harrumphing on TV about the necessity of global standards.  Yes, because that is the easy way out. The matatu industry has less to do with efficient transportation than business opportunities where the travelling public are a captive market, but they are loud and entrenched, and that is reason enough to expect their continued presence.

Matatu transportation is characterized by considerable creativity and risk – taking, inconsistent execution and flagrant rule – breaking. In addition to the aggressive driving that is now de rigueur if one is to get anywhere, matatus and matatu – style driving have long meant the destruction of public walkways, futile attempts to escape traffic jams leading to longer journeys, and inconsistent stopping, just about anywhere. At rush hour only the fittest commuters stand a chance . Many matatus consistently refuel with the engine running because, apparently, they are in a hurry.

Whatever accusations can be leveled at them, the old KBS buses were reliable. They were uncomfortable, packed, and hot if you were in front, near the engine, but they kept time, or tried to.  The drivers were disciplined, not stopping just anywhere. They issued monthly bus passes. They carried more people.

Recent calls by the Matatu Welfare Association for 14 – seater vehicles to be retained and accommodated in new transportation infrastructure do nothing to advance the cause of decongesting the city. The 14 – seater payload is highly inefficient. There are other requests matatu owners could yet make of the government, such as financing to enable a transition to larger vehicles, but they seem unwilling to go there. They also seem to have offered no concessions, yet with larger vehicle operators ready to capitalize should 14 – seaters withdraw services per their threat, and the government planning transit reform, their position is tenuous.

The phased switch to longer minibuses constitutes only a partial nod to the wider transportation problem. Much more needs to be done.

First, there must be an alternative to matatus in the market to incentivize better driving from them.  A choice between Sacco A and Sacco B in the current regime is really not a choice. We cannot hope to ameliorate urban congestion if we do not have adequate bus capacity seating at least 50 passengers and allowing for standing.

Second, urban transportation should employ technology to support governance goals such as social inclusion, safety, accessibility and environmental protection. Innovations already in the market include clean combustion, buses that ‘kneel’ to allow the wheelchair-bound to board, remote monitoring of vehicle locations using GPS to curb speeding, radio communication, voice announcement of destinations in real time which helps the visually impaired, and automatic, driver – controlled doors. At present, only buses can deliver these things.

How do we move from the aggressive minibus to the responsive, well – driven, professionally – run transit bus?  How do we get from the vestiges of KBS (Kenya Bus Service) to the promised land of KBS (Kigali Bus Service) where they now carry smartcards?  Matatu operators seem oblivious to the desire of commuters for better services, and it is difficult to envision matatu – driven transportation reform when they have long thrived on chaos.

The Matatu industry must  deliver better services and work hard to rectify its long – standing failings, lest it be overtaken by technology and urban commuter preferences. Regard for customer service, safety, and social responsibility would do much to guarantee matatus a bright future in the Nairobi of today or the Konza of tomorrow.