Mobility, sustainability, and identity are three key elements for good cities. Developed economies enjoy public transport systems with fixed routes, schedules, and pricing; but this is not the case in developing countries. In Africa, citizens use a variety of means to get around, ranging from small minibuses to riding on the back of motorcycles.
Nairobi is well known for these forms of paratransit. The most popular are locally known as matatus, which range from small fourteen-seater vans, twenty-eight-seater minibuses, and more recently, big buses.
Matatus have created their own identity. They are known for their loud music comparable to local discotheques, large TV screens, and even Wi-Fi services for those who like to be on social media.
They emerged informally due to the shortage of public transport in the 1960s. The President of Kenya gave them formal recognition in 1973. This opened opportunity for them to compete with the then well-established Kenya Bus Service, who had enjoyed a monopoly in provision of public transport in Nairobi.
Over time, they have taken over public transportation. In the 1990s, they were designed in very creative ways in order to attract young customers. For example, some would bear the names of famous athletes and sports teams like Michael Jordan. They were also known for overloading to maximize profits, provoking a famous saying “a matatu can never get full.” All this came to a halt with a ban on standing passengers and laws that limited them to have one dominant exterior colour with a yellow line painted across the vehicle.
Where does their future lie? Most are controlled by strong cartels that decide who enters the market. Potential investors pay to join on ‘lucrative’ routes. Their crews are known to be the rude and the worst behaved on the road; recently, a train rammed into a bus and killed eleven people. With no fixed schedule, routes can change depending on traffic, and fares can change depending on demand and weather. It is also true that some of them are owned by senior officers in the traffic department and get away with traffic offences.
The Nairobi 2013 Master Plan gives way for the establishment of BRT, LRT and Urban Metro lines. The 1986 plan had also proposed Bus ways and LRT. With the Governor of Nairobi promising a transportation system that is suitable for all including the physically impaired, children, and the elderly, one can only wait and see. If Enrique Penalosa was able to do it in Bogota, who says that it is not possible in Nairobi!
What future do developing countries have in providing their citizens with efficient, reliable and safe urban transportation? Please leave your comments below.
Credits: Images by Paul Odak. Data linked to sources.