November 22 2013

Matatus: Nairobi’s Leader of Transportation Since 1973

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.

A man boards a van in the middle of a highway, Africa

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.

A bus stops at a non-designated stop, Africa

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.

Constant Cap

Constant Cap has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. He holds an undergraduate degree from the same university. He regularly writes about urban planning issues online and in local dailies. Constant was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and is passionate about the planning issues facing African Cities. He has a deep interest in sustainable transportation, urban resilience and the application of ‘new urbanism’ in Africa. He intends to work as a planner on the African continent and assist in bringing about modern sustainable urbanism. He currently works at the Advancement Office at Strathmore University, Nairobi.

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 22nd, 2013 at 9:12 am and is filed under #thegrid Twitter Chat, Engineering, Government/Politics, Infrastructure, Technology, Transportation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “Matatus: Nairobi’s Leader of Transportation Since 1973”

  1. Ojwang Says:

    Good write up.How do we as Kenyans compare with other countries at our level eg Ghana, Nigeria,South Africa? With comparisons we can see whether we are moving forward or backwards.
    The emergence of motorcycles in Nairobi points to bigger problems; the authorities have been unable to provide good transport network to reach all corners of Nairobi and secondly,increase in poverty levels and thus people cant afford private taxis.The matatu cartels also enjoy political cover and thus putting order will need another Michuki who enjoyed a higher political cover than the matatu cartels. Cheers

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