Public transport: Are matatus really cheap?

Passengers boarding a Nairobi Commuter Railbus at the green park matatu terminus on December 1, 2022. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Nairobi has gone through a transport revolution with bypasses making it unnecessary to drive through the city centre.

The roads have made the city more livable but with unintended consequences like lowering rents near the city center as far flung area become reachable. The roads benefit car owners despite rising petrol prices.

But we forgot even pedestrians are beneficiaries. They too use the new roads to access their workplaces.

Luckily the road designers have realised that Kenya is a walking nation and provided walkways even in affluent suburbs like spring valley or Westlands.

Kenya, despite adopting the USA constitution, is yet to become a car country. Maybe building new roads will accelerate that. How many cars per person do we have in Kenya compared to the US?

Every morning and evening you meet hordes of men and women walking along highways and link roads going to or leaving work. To them, matatus are too expensive.  

It’s an issue we have not looked at critically; the pricing of public transport in Kenya. There has not been a countervailing force to matatu power in Kenya. Does that lead to higher matatu fares?  

Competitors to matatus are too few. Bodaboda, tuk tuks, train and, you guessed right, walking. Efforts to give matatus competition have not been very successful. Remember Nyayo bus?

The rail is constrained by routes, only a few. Now we have BRT (bus rapid transit) in the pipeline. Will it make matatus lower their prices? Like rail, BRT is on only on a few routes, matatus are everywhere.

Matatus have another competitive advantage beyond large numbers - they are flexible in pricing and very responsive to supply and demand. They have peak and off-peak rates.  

A regulation sometime ago made it mandatory for matatus to be grouped in Saccos. Did that give them control over pricing? Saccos charge entry fees for new matatu owners; does that restrict the numbers despite the illusion that there are too many matatus?  

It seems matatu business is very profitable, but it has too many stakeholders who share the spoils. Do you own a matatu? Do you agree with my assessment?  

We can build bypasses and expressways but we are yet to touch the hustler’s transport needs. He still walks to work and back. Giving him affordable transport would inject efficiency into the economy and make the vast majority of citizens more productive.