Matatus Own the Streets

Last week, I co-hosted a seminar on urban mobility. We had a diverse group of entrepreneurs, policymakers, academics, and investors who are all striving to transform Kenya’s urban transport system. These stakeholders rarely get in the same room together and, to some extent, don’t speak the same language. So, it was a cool opportunity to collaborate and speak honestly about the challenges.* Here are some of the topics we tackled:

The intersection of home, work, transit: how housing and transport are inextricably linked.

Integration of informal transport industries: how can and should matatus and boda boda networks be integrated into formal mobility systems?

Connected transport systems: what infrastructure (BRT, rail, metro systems) is realistically possible and most applicable to the challenges of congestion, affordability, and the environment.

Role of private sector in transit: what is the private sector doing and how does it fit into current government plans?

Sustainable Mobility Seminar

Let me first explain a bit about what Kenya’s transportation systems look like. Nairobi is the most vibrant and challenging example. According to the World Journal of Science Research, on average Nairobians spend 14–30% of their income on transport. Can you imagine? In the US, we’re often told a rule of thumb for budgeting: “spend less than 30% of your income on housing.” Many low-income people in Nairobi spend 30% of their earnings just getting to work!

How do people travel? I mentioned in a prior post that more than 40% of Nairobians walk as their primary means of transport because all other options are too expensive. About 30% use matatus (14-seater mini-buses) and 15% use a private car. You’ll notice that nowhere in that data do we see a true public transport system. Nairobi, and most cities in Africa, rely on informal transit — primarily matatus — to provide mobility services. 75–95% of all commuter rides are provided by informal operators. Ultimately, the matatus own the streets of Nairobi and other Kenyan cities.

[Side note & fun fact about the origin of the word “matatu”: “tatu” is the Kiswahili word for “three”. Matatu is MaThree in Sheng (Nairobi Kiswahili/English slang), and the “three” in their name dates to the 1960s, when the typical fare was three shillings (US 3¢). Other great mini-bus names: In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, they are “Dala dala” because the prices in the 1970s were equivalent to $1 USD (dollar = “dala”). In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian, they’re called “Blue Donkeys!”]

My first matatu rides were through Gaborone, when I was 15 and spent the summer in Botswana. They’re called “combis” there. But, my most extensive experiences with the good, bad and ugly of mini-bus commuting was in Kampala, Uganda, when I spent a semester at Makerere University. I lived with a family down Ggaba Road and commuted into town every day for months in the mini-buses (often just call “taxis” there, which is confusing!), arriving at this taxi park photoed below.

The mini-bus taxi park in Kampala, Uganda, which was part of my daily routine

I loved the vibrancy of the mini-bus commute — the music, the strong personalities of the drivers & conductors, the crazy things I would see being sold out the window. I also hated the cramped, sweaty, jerking experience, sitting in stagnant traffic, holding on to possessions tightly to avoid theft. And, the body odor (partially mine, I’m sure) of our collective humanity.

Some classic matatu / bus art that I spotted this weekend.

As a foreigner, it’s easy to romanticize the matatu. These mini-vans have their charms that many Kenyans appreciate — the great music (each matatu seeming to compete for the best and LOUDEST tunes), the vibrant decorations and graffiti artwork across the outside, the convenience. But, most Kenyans have a love/hate relationship with matatus that is veering more towards hate by the day.

How do we maintain the benefits and strengths of the matatu systems — the demand responsiveness, financial viability, job creation, entrepreneurial benefits, economic development — while managing the problems and weaknesses — unsafe operations, poor quality, lack of affordability, tense relations with goverment authorities? This is the holy grail question and one I am striving to answer.

Anecdotally, Susan, my Kiswahili teacher (who also works full-time at a health clinic), tells me that she has to take two different matatus to get to work, so she pays both fares, totaling $1/trip or $2/day. (And, when it rains, the price doubles!) So, if Susan’s experience is representative, an average Nairobian could spend ~$500 a year on commuting, while Nairobi’s GDP per capita is only $1,081.** So, transport cost would equate to ~50% of average income in the city.

Naomi, who cleans our apartment, often walks 1.5–2 hours to get to work, because she lives in an outer suburb where she can afford the rent, but she can’t afford the matatu fares. Her monthly commuting costs would be higher than her rent. Susan and Naomi are people with solid jobs and income, not informal workers. So, just imagine how hard it must be for the 78% of Kenyans employed in the informal workforce with unreliable incomes.

Ultimately, matatus are ruthlessly efficient, which in many ways I admire (I do love efficiency!). It’s what makes them financially self-sufficient, while most public transit systems in the world are highly subsidized (in the US, subsidies cover up to 75% of the cost of urban public transit). But, it’s also what makes them cut corners and push the limit on what they can get away with. In our seminar, someone pointed out that we can view that lack of safety as the ultimate cost society pays for unsubsidized transport.

Someone made the fair point that transport systems don’t need to be publicly operated, but they need to be publicly regulated. Accountability is key. For example, matatus cause near daily fatal accidents in Kenya. Back in 2015, a program launched called “Zusha!,” Swahili for “protest,” which put stickers in matatus to urge riders to speak up when they witnessed reckless driving. Researchers found that the stickers reduced insurance claims of matatus by as much as one-third, reduced the number of traffic accidents by 140/year, and reduced average speeds by up to 2km/hour. How cool is that?

Nairobi’s “Zusha!” campaign, encouraging rider to speak up when they witness reckless driving.

Another interesting insight from the discussion: matatus are often vilified for causing trouble on the roads. But, apparently, there are 3,000 matatus in Nairobi and 3,000,000 private vehicles. The private vehicles are really the problem. Today, the wealthy drive their own cars or take the, now omnipresent, ride-hailing services (Taxify, Uber, Little, Mondo). It’s a big status symbol to have a car in Kenya — a sign that you’ve made it. It’s hard to imagine this trend being curbed anytime soon. But, the solution to urban transport CANNOT be:

[better, wider roads] + [ride-hailing apps] = [happy city] … :-(

This is a critical moment in Nairobi’s transportation planning. About 10 days ago, the Kenyan Highway Authority started drawing red lines on one of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares into the city. In big news, Nairobi is rolling out bus rapid transport (BRT), with lessons from Bogota, Dar-es-Salaam and elsewhere. BRT is “a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities.” Many experts agree that BRT is a good idea for emerging market cities, but will it work in Nairobi? It all comes down to execution. And, it has sparked a wild debate on Twitter (Side note: Kenyans LOVE twitter!! I just left Silicon Valley as a non-tweeter; now that I am living in Nairobi, I think I’m obligated to start). We will all be watching closely.

Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit (DART) system, launched in 2016. While it’s had hiccups, this BRT system is generally viewed as a success.

Our session ended with a soft-spoken senior transportation engineer from the Kenyan government sharing why he cared about his job. He spoke of a woman he met who wakes up at 4am every day to reach the office at 8am, and reaches home again at 9pm. He wondered how a family of two working parents manages with this commute, and what their children do with their parents absent all this time. He wants urban transportation to help these people. He said, “I want to give people their lives back.”


* Note that our seminar followed Chathan House Rules in order to encourate frank discussion. Therefore, I am not disclosing any names of participants or attributing ideas/comments to specific individuals.

** I couldn’t find an income/capita number, but this is representative.

Nairobi’s first attempt at introducing the BRT onto Thika Highway. It’s been confusing, to say the least.