A policeman boards a matatu in Nairobi.
A Kenyan policeman boards a matatu after the vehicle was stopped for a traffic offense. “Every matatu driver has been in jail at least once,” says James Kariuki, a 20-year veteran of the industry. Antony Njuguna/Reuters

BRT and light rail plans for Kenya’s capital will most likely leave the privately owned and much maligned matatus and boda-bodas behind. Their operators, however, won’t likely go away without a fight.

Earlier this year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta inaugurated a new railway line connecting Nairobi to Mombasa, the single most traveled route in the country. Expected to carry several thousand passengers a day and cut the travel time between the country's two biggest cities from nine hours to four, the Madaraka Line garnered international headlines. While it may be the future of Kenya, it doesn't change much for the majority of citizens in the capital of Nairobi, which has some of the worst traffic in the world.

What keeps it from being even worse is the matatu—or privately owned shared bus. About 70 percent of the capital’s 1.3 million commuters use a matatu at some point every month for their commute. With the roads already snarled with traffic, one can only imagine the roads having three times as many private cars in their place. For the vast majority of Nairobi there is no public transport—four aging commuter lines run twice in the morning and once or twice in the evening, but their stops are few and far between and their capacity limited.

The matatu is the only shared means of transportation and—without massive investment—the only realistic way of moving its citizens around without further congesting the city. And yet, they’re widely regarded as a necessary evil rather than an efficiency.

“Every matatu driver has been in jail at least once,” says James Kariuki, a 20-year veteran of the industry. It's a recognized hazard of driving a matatu in the Kenyan capital. The loud, smoke-belching vans and buses are blamed by government officials for air pollution, traffic jams, downtown congestion, and deadly accidents. They’re reviled and cursed at by commuters and preyed upon for bribes by the police. Kariuki documents on his blog how a matatu left for the Kenyan attendees of a United Nations Environmental Assembly to decorate was instead covered in admonishments such as, “Please matatu; don’t kill more Kenyans, you have taken too many of us,” and “Get matatu out of the roads and introduce BRT.”

Much of this ill-will falls on the drivers of the matatus. As they work for owners without assurance of continued employment, benefits, regular salary, or daily earnings, they often employ cutthroat measures: fares that double or even triple when the weather turns rainy, breakneck speeds and driving in highway medians or across sidewalks to complete more trips, filling a bus with “poster passengers” to make it appear as though the bus is nearly full and thus about to depart. The owners charge the drivers a fixed amount per day, the driver and conductor—or “tout”—collect money from passengers and split the profit after bribes are paid, gas is bought, and the owner is compensated.

“The drivers are responsible for the money and the costs, the owners provide the bus and the drivers pay the fees,” Kariuki says. “A good day is $40 and a hard day is $10 or nothing or sometimes jail.”

Loud, smoke-belching matatus are blamed by government officials for air pollution, traffic jams, downtown congestion, and deadly accidents. (Joshua Noble)

The transportation ministry has tried to regulate the matatu industry, passing laws that mandate the use of electronic speed limiters on the buses, routes, and safety inspections, but these rules are rarely enforced and the owners are rarely concerned how drivers get their money as long as they get it.

The Kenyan public isn't alone in disdaining the matatu. The Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Masterplan (NIUPLAN) omits any mention of informal mass transit altogether other than to point out that their stops to discharge or collect passengers cause traffic jams. Instead, it plans for Bus Rapid Transit and a light rail system. Sammy Shileche of the Nairobi County Urban Design Department says, “First, we need to decongest the central business district and then we can deal with where matatus will be allowed and not allowed.” When asked whether the long-term future of Nairobi includes the matatu, he simply smiles and shakes his head. “It will all be public sector.”

BRT and light rail plans for Nairobi have been laid out and although halting progress has been made, all parties seem to recognize that the future of transit in Nairobi will have to look different. Attempts to regulate the buses and reduce congestion in the central business district in recent years have been met with sporadic violence and strikes that have paralyzed the city.

By law, all owners of matatus on the roads of Nairobi are members of a Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations (SACCO) which controls one or more routes. The SACCOs themselves have a murky reputation, acting as cartels and often aligning themselves with members of Kenyan parliament or ministers for protection. When Uber considered attempting to mimic the matatu system with a nine seat bus offering, most of the Kenyan staff threatened to quit out of fear of the SACCOs. Joe Nderitu, head of the Public Transport Operators Union, a union for matatu drivers, claims that the introduction of BRT without consultation by and compensation for matatu drivers could lead to violent reprisals. “There are 300,000 workers in Kenya directly and indirectly in this industry,” Nderitu says. “That is too many mouths… you cannot remove the workers from the equation.”

He points to the introduction of BRT in Johannesburg in 2010 which saw strikes and violent clashes between transport workers in the informal sectors and public service. “That can happen here too,” he claims. Given the ferocity of the strikes in 2012 and 2014, matatu owners and SACCOs are also likely to play by the rough and tumble rules of Kenyan politics to protect their investments. “Every proposal we bring to them, they fight,” Shileche says. “The industry is controlled by cartels who use their financial strength to fight any improvements we propose.”

Even more demonized than the matatu is the boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi, which is incredibly effective at navigating heavy traffic but seen as a dangerous means of transport often utilized by criminals or terrorists. The Nairobi county government banned boda-bodas from the central business district. The rules allowed the government to impound the motorbikes of drivers caught before releasing them after the accrued fines were too high to ever be paid by the drivers. Enforcement of these laws lapsed, says Richard, who only provides his first name. He has ridden a motorcycle in Nairobi for 10 years both as a boda-boda and a delivery driver. “We go everywhere. If you're in a hurry, you have to go with us, you can't sit in traffic for one hour or two hours.”

The Kenyan National Transportation Safety Administration blames boda-bodas for causing the majority of deadly accidents and publicly grapples with how to constrain the industry and keep them out of city centers. While they are frequently painted as transport solely for the poor, Richard disagrees: “Everyone takes a boda when they are in a hurry, even white people.” He shows the safety orange bib he wears for visibility and the second helmet he keeps on hand for passengers who want one. “It's not dangerous,” he insists. “If you have a wise driver, you will be there on time.”

With youth unemployment estimated to be between 22 and 40 percent, his defensiveness about his profession and its importance is understandable. Motorcycles are a key transportation and delivery mechanism in many of the informal settlements that house around 700,000 residents in Greater Nairobi. “We go into Kibera, we go to the airport, everywhere,” says Richard. Indeed, in Kibera, a sprawling informal settlement which houses between 200,000 and 1 million residents, the narrow mud walkways are passable only by bicycle or motorcycle. It's hard to see how further demonizing and restricting a vital mode of logistics and transport could make life in the city any easier. As I sat on a motionless matatu one rush-hour afternoon watching boda-bodas zip past me, a woman next to me observed my envy and said, almost wistfully, “Yes, but they are so dangerous.”

Motorcycles are a key transportation and delivery mechanism in many of the informal settlements that house around 700,000 residents in Greater Nairobi. (Joshua Noble)

Shileche sees a place for the motorcycles in the city’s future, but “only as delivery, not for passengers.” Adversarial relationships between private transport and municipalities are nothing new, but in Nairobi there is only private transport and varying degrees of acceptance and disapproval. While the government plans new towns and cities with dreams of buses and light rail lines connecting them all, the day-to-day reality is a complicated overlap of informal systems often bemoaned by citizens and only just tolerated by a government that doesn't see them in its future.

Curiously, the Nairobi County government has seemingly embraced the third mode of transport for hire available in the city: ride-hailing apps like Uber, Taxify, Little, Mondo, and MaraMoja. The Kenyan Revenue Authority recently ruled that Uber was not a transportation company and hence could pay the lower taxation rate of a software company. New regulations by the city to make parking more expensive and booting more common in the central business district has certainly not diminished the popularity of these services either. Drivers are not required to have any sort of chauffeur licensing to drive for Uber and skirmishes between traditional taxis and ride-hailing apps seem to have been won by the Ubers and Littles. Commuters certainly have responded, with Nairobi ranking as Uber’s third most popular market on the continent behind Cairo and Johannesburg.

Matatu drivers and owners have taken note of this, Kariuki says. Projects like the Smart Matatu fleet management and driver tracking project as well as the Magic Bus’s bus tracking and ticket purchasing both point to a better tracked and managed future for the backbone of Nairobi's transportation network. Sendy tried to make hailing boda-boda just like hailing an Uber, but ended up focusing its efforts instead on delivering packages via motorbike. The Dubai-based Mondo Ride and Kenyan BodApp also offer boda-boda hailing with limited success so far. These innovations look to add technology to existing solutions in informal transit and logistics to improve customer experience. One could also look at them as an attempt to legitimize themselves in the face of a government that seemingly wants to plan them out of existence.

The future of transportation in Nairobi looks to be a delicate balancing act. How it’ll move forward without abandoning or angering matatu and boda-boda workers remains an open question.

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