Advancements in urban public transportation have spawned some of the most advanced technologies in the world. Some cities have turned it into an art. For instance, Tokyo’s urban rail efficiently moves 40 million people daily on over 4700 km of track.

However, the case is not as simple in many other cities. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, has more than 3 million people, according to the 2009 census. The city moves around on over 20,000 matatus – buses, minibuses and vans – which reach practically all its corners and beyond, all the time.

While part of Tokyo’s urban rail, like the urban transit systems of most cities in the developed world, is owned or subsidised by the government, all of Nairobi’s matatus are owned and operated privately. The government is only involved in regulating and taxing the industry, paving the way for a flowering of private enterprise governed solely by the market forces of supply and demand.

It might seem a chaotic compromise, but it spares the government the enormous cost it would incur in a take-over or subsidisation program and funds it through taxes, without being half as chaotic as it seems. All considered, it’s not so bad a deal, as the government probably lacks the resources to be more heavily involved and still take care of its other duties.

Part of the city’s cultural fabric since independence, matatus are perhaps Nairobi’s most ubiquitous feature. The origin of the name is obscure, but may have something to do with the three rows of bench seats the original matatus – Peugeot 504s – had, or the typical three-cent fare they charged immediately after independence. ‘Tatu’ is the KiSwahili word for three.

Most of the vehicles are covered in layers of graffiti depicting anything from world-renowned celebrities to popular local trends. Many boast some of the loudest music systems in the city, vibrating the very dusty streets they rumble along. And rumble they do. Indeed, there is a case to be made that Nairobi’s matatus are among the most, if not the most, carelessly-driven vehicles in the world.

The cost shows up in the fatalities and injuries associated with them. Road accidents killed 3318 people in 2013, 2907 in 2014 and 1900 so far this year. A large number of these accidents are caused by or involve matatus. A university student was recently crushed to death between two matatus jostling to be first to the terminus, and thus first in line to pick passengers, causing national and outcry.

The student was crossing the road between the two vehicles, which were too close to each other, meaning only a minor jerk was needed to crush her. There is rarely any space between matatus on any street in the city, and their constant jostling makes crossing roads in the city look like a skipping game. And they always rub against or bump into one another; so much so that finding scratch-free matatu in Nairobi, even among the newer ones, is an exercise in futility.

So chaotic are Nairobi’s matatus that it is hard for non-residents to believe that the system is actually highly organized in some respects – a surprising discovery made in a recent study by researchers from MIT in collaboration with the University of Nairobi, Columbia University and Groupshot Design Consultancy. The project, called Digital Matatus, was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. It yielded a stylised map of the seemingly chaotic matatu routes which is now available on Google Maps.


Matatu traffic patterns. Image: MIT Urban Planning


The organisation doesn’t end there though. Most matatus are owned and operated by saccos (savings and credit cooperatives) and private companies, many of which are assigned specific routes; crews wear uniforms; and fares are mostly regulated by management based on time, although fares along some routes are still weather-dependent. Even callers – Nairobi’s louder equivalents of Tokyo’s oshiya (pushers) – operate from specific matatu stops and are paid standard fees. 

This order in the seemingly disorganized industry is largely an artifact of regulatory measures that came into effect with the (in)famous Michuki Rules of 2004, named for the late John Michuki, who was then the transport minister.

The rules required matatus to operate along fixed routes. Previously, matatu crews had total control over the routes they plied, meaning their route decisions were frequently influenced by demand, inconveniencing passengers and overloading certain roads. The Michuki rules also forced crews to wear uniforms, and compelled them to install safety belts and speed governors. The regulations came at a time when matatu impunity was at a record high.

Further regulation in 2011 outlined a plan to phase out 14-seater matatus because of their low capacity – a major cause of the traffic jams which lose the city US$ 500,000 daily – and replace them with minibuses and buses seating at least 28 passengers. A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for the city was envisaged. The importation of 14-seater vans was therefore banned, along with graffiti – making for cleaner and better-lit vehicles. 

President Kenyatta has since lifted both the ban on new 14-seaters – said to be poorly timed – and the smaller vans have started trickling back onto Nairobi’s roads. The ban on graffiti is also gone, and previously uniform-looking sacco vans and buses are regaining their layers of celebrities and trends – providing employment for the youth involved.

While the reasons given for lifting the bans might be plausible, the action didn’t lay a roadmap for solving the transport headache that continues to bother the city’s passengers and sap its energy and resources. Nor did it propose a means for taming rogue matatu crews, whose antics are getting more adventurous – and dangerous – with increasingly relaxed enforcement of the Michuki Rules and other traffic regulations.

Matatus constantly bully other drivers on city roads, running every possible light and zebra crossing. Arbitrary routes are creeping back. Crews routinely harass passengers verbally and change fares without regard for amounts set by the saccos and companies. Every now and then, their carelessness results in tragic loss, like that of the university student, spawning an outcry. But then things cool down and matatus go back to ruling the roads with impunity.

While it goes without saying that the industry needs stronger regulation and enforcement to become the ideal public transportation system it ought to be, the picture of the sector would be incomplete without noting the more positive aspects, which will perhaps provide the improvement the industry so sorely needs.

To get to the conference at which he lifted the aforementioned bans, President Kenyatta travelled in a matatu, and paid his fare – and that of the CEO of Safaricom, who was in the same vehicle – using a card instead of cash. He was actually going to launch a cashless payment system, which would guard against unauthorized fare hikes by matatu crews and help track matatu revenue, estimated to be in the order of millions of dollars. The technology is yet to be scaled, but it holds immense promise.

A startup recently launched a system that displays adverts in matatus based on their location – leveraging on the data from the Digital Matatus project. To do that, the system tracks the vehicles involved, meaning it also provides real-time traffic updates, helping passengers to make better-informed route decisions.

Furthermore, increasing numbers of matatus are becoming mobile WiFi hotspots, providing passengers with affordable internet access on their frequently lengthy commutes. Other technologies are revolutionizing the transport scene in the city, adding flavour to the mundane act of moving from place to place.

And it’s as well there are improvements. It is highly unlikely that matatus will disappear from the city any time soon. The industry has never had competitors, and there are none on the horizon by current indications. Most commuters don’t have cars, taxis are too expensive, and urban rail is virtually non-existent.

Even Uber, which has had runaway success in some parts of the world – not without controversy – and recently made an entry into Nairobi, can’t match the relative efficiency and cost-effectiveness of matatus for most of the city’s commuters. It might be quite a wait before matatu crews riot over being cannibalised by the newcomer.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.