Course:GEOG352/2020/Private and Public Vehicle Transportation in Nairobi, Kenya

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Public transportation in urban areas is what allows cities to breathe and what allows the inhabitants of a city to flow from one area to another.[1] Sub-Saharan African countries have often failed to produce viable, institutionalized forms of public transit, forcing many transit operators to find private, informal niches of public transit to function within.[1] Informal economies in Africa employ 85.8 percent of all laborers.[2] Given the growing percentage of populations living in urban spaces, the demand for public transportation within these urban spaces logically follows a rising trend as well. However, urban areas primarily characterized by informal economies are also incredibly dense and generally low-income areas, sometimes known as slums, thus placing an increased desire for safe, cheap transportation.[3] Informal transit, better known as paratransit in the Global North, allows for residents of poor urban spaces to access transportation on a daily basis, yet informal public transit often comes with a slew of costs such as erratic timetables, market competition, and worker exploitation.[3] Given the intricate, fragile nature of the geography of slums, access to public transportation has plenty of beneficial symptoms.[4] These symptoms often include a raise in financial value of slums, the ability for women to access higher paying informal economies in core urban areas, and the ability for children to consistently attend school.[4]

Matatu Manyanga, just a placeholder if we find something better

Nairobi, Kenya offers a valuable insight to the nature of public transportation in the Global South because of the colonial roots and violent history of the transportation industry.[5] The Matatus of Nairobi, as will be discussed, are an infamous display of the ability informal urban areas have to organize urban functions for themselves outside of existing, underserving, core urban institutions.[5]


The issue we have decided to explore surrounds the provision of Matatus in the city of Nairobi, especially the results of post-colonial physical and political infrastructure networks. Consequently, the erratic nature of public transport and its functionality in the spaces between private and state leave many areas of concern regarding the safety, accessibility and functionality of transportation. In 1928, Nairobi had the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world. European settlers planned Nairobi in a way that segregated mobility racially. Consequently, local Kenyans did not have the luxury of private transportation and were subject to commuting on foot for nearly two decades. Matatus didn’t fill the void this colonial design flaw created until the 1950s.

This theme is important in general because consistent public transportation allows people in poorer urban areas to access economic opportunities in other areas of a city. The link between a population's mobility and social mobility is well known[6]. Urban transportation is arguably uniquely situated in its ability to promote urban justice but only if it is adopted in such a way that it acts to reduce the inequalities faced by those that are economically and socially disadvantaged rather than marginalize them further[7]. Urban mass transportations systems in cities such as Singapore, where up to 67% of peak travel is done by public transport[8], have shown that a highly efficient, economically and socially accessible system is capable of mobilizing a cities population in a positive way that undermines colonial, segregated systems.

The scale of the issue is relatively local because of the unique historical development of Matatus in Nairobi, especially in its urban periphery. However, the concepts analyzed with our study of Matatus in Nairobi, of the role transportation equity in creating a city for everyone and the formation and importance of the informal economy within the functioning of cities, can certainly be applied to other urban areas globally.

Why Nairobi?

Nairobi Bus Terminal

Nairobi is the second-fastest growing city in Africa. According to the last official population census in 2009, the city had a population of 3.14 million, and this is expected to reach 5.2 million by 2050 [9][10]. Alongside with an increase in population and city development comes an increase in demand for public transportation. In Nairobi, paratransit systems have come to fill the gap left as a result of poor funding and management of the municipal transport system [11]. This paratransit system is made up of 14 seat minibuses called Matatus, which are privately owned and operated by individuals or cooperatives. The semiformal Matatu system, containing over 30,000 vehicles[12], runs on 135 flexible routes, stops and schedules and it accounts for 40.7% of all trips and 87% of the public transport passenger market share[13]. The Matatu system also employs over 350,000 Kenyans annually[12].

In Nairobi, the occasionally violent cartels managing this transportation system can create hazards to public life and Matatus are a symbol of political corruption within the city. Although Matatus are now legal, as recognized by the Transport Licensing Board, the politicians policing these buses also own Matatus themselves[12]. This conflict of interest, combined with historical significance, makes regulating Matatus all the more difficult.

Whilst Matatus are not unique to Nairobi, their importance to the city makes it an optimal place for their study. Matatus are inextricably linked to both the functioning and spirit of Nairobi and bound to the cities past and future to such an extent that influential Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina once said “Matatus are Nairobi and Nairobi is Matatus" [14].

Case Study: Matatus in Nairobi

Issues with Matatus

With the success of Nairobi as a city able to support its population tied to matutus, their performance is subject to intense scrutiny from both the top-down and the bottom-up [12] . Whilst the privately operated system offers flexibility and demand responsiveness there are still not enough buses to cover the demand during rush hours, there are significant environmental concerns due to lack of regulation and there are the challenges of accessibility and safety, especially for women and people with physical disabilities. Additionally, the focus in Nairobi appears to be prioritizing the construction of roads and highways over the development of mass transportation [15], an approach which could lead to an increase in the levels of fragmentation and social and spatial inequality.


The Matatu network dominates the passengers share market, expanding to the majority of the city, and carrying about 70,000 passengers per day [11][13]. However, whilst Matatus carry a significant share of people, Kenya as a whole has also seen a 300% increase in registered motor vehicles between 2007 and 2018, with the majority being single-family cars primarily used by a rising middle class escaping the perceived lack of safety of Matatus [16][17]. This rise in vehicle numbers is compounded by Nairobi’s geography, with the vast majority of jobs located within the same central of town, and by its strictly observed 8am - 5pm working day, meaning that the vast majority of all daily journeys in the city occur in the same two-hour window in the same direction [18]. With the both city’s formal and informal labour force still reliant on Matatu buses for the movement of people across the city, it is estimated that Nairobi’s congestion leads to an approximate loss of KSh 58 million ($5.6 USD Mn) per day in productivity [19].

File:Archangel and Buju Matatus 01.jpg
Passangers boarding matatu bus in Nairobi


The ramifications of Nairobi’s congestion is not purely economic either. A 2016 study found air pollution in Nairobi could be a factor in the deaths of 1.5 million residents over the next 30 years, with road traffic and the city’s  30,000 Matatus cited as a key factor [20]. Additionally, Matatu-related pollution extends beyond just congestion with a UN report concluding that the Matatu drivers practice of leaving their engine idling while parked to attract customers and combat vehicle unreliability was a significant source of the air pollution in Nairobi[21] .

Business models and SACCO

There are two major challenges in the Matatu business operation model. Firstly, drivers are remunerated based on a “daily target”, and secondly, management ignores depreciation as an operating expense. This means that whilst Matatu's are generally profitable and desirable for their owners, the drivers themselves remain among the lowest paid groups in Nairobi. The problem is made worse by police corruption which results in drivers having to pay considerable out of pocket expenses to bribe officers. This has created considerable friction between Matatu owners, employees and the police [22].

SACCO (Savings and credit cooperative societies), have tried to address these issues by shifting to salaries and imposing depreciation costing as a “share” contribution. In 2010, the Transport Licensing Board required all inter-city and intra-city Matatus to consolidate into either a SACCO or a transport management company to be eligible to renew their Public Service Vehicle licenses [13]. However, despite these measures an uneasy relationship between those invested in running Matatus still exists.

Economic and Social Accessibility

Even though paratransit is utilized by a large percentage of Nairobi’s population, a substantial proportion still cannot afford motorized transportation and may live in lower quality housing conditions in slums in order to have walking distance access to employment when no other modes are affordable[15].

Although poor residents have access to transit, affordability remains an issue. Within slum households, only 38% have at least 1member that regularly uses public transport, compared to 80% of households citywide [15].

Matatu routes have high levels of place-based accessibility along transit routes, however southern and eastern-most parts of Nairobi have lower accessibility levels given they have fewer number of roads [15].



Whilst Matatus are a crucial part for the movement of the city, much of the issues surrounding them are born out of their under regulation, with standards needed to ensure Matatus emissions are minimized, passengers are transported efficiently and accessibility is available across the system. However, regulation is particularly difficult to address because of the Matatus history in Nairobi. Outlawed during the British colonial period, Matatus were seen as “pirate taxis” and harrassed by the police[14]. Post-independence Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta then legalised them, and the deregulated Matatu became embedded in Kenyan ideals of a new post-colonial, laissez-faire future where the transportation needs of lower-income Nariobians were met by entrepreneurial Matatu operators[23]. However, the relative profitability of Matatus for their owners has meant that attempts to eventually introduce sensible regulation onto Matatus was hampered by the fact that elected officials and senior police officers increasingly became owners of Matatu operations. Former Minister for Transport Chirau Ali Mwakware confessed during his tenure in the mid-2000s “I own a Matatu and therefore cannot shoot myself in the foot (by increasing regulation)” [24].

The backlash against the corruption within the Matatu industry came to head in the backdrop of the wider 2007-2008 Kenyan political crisis and the anti-corruption measures imposed in its aftermath. Unfortunately, top-down actions surrounding Matatus have been heavy-handed and done with little consultation with either those employed in the industry or Matatu users. In 2018 the city government, citing Matatus as the biggest cause of congestion, attempted to ban them from the city centre. The ban lasted just two days before the public outcry and Matatu owners' threatsw to bring the whole city to a complete standstill led to its reversal [25]. This affair demonstrates that as long as new attempts to regulate Matatus are top-down initiatives that do not address the challenges of the majority of Narobians they will fail. Moreover, the approach raises important questions surrounding whether Nairobi is able to engage with Henri Lefebvre’s theory of The Right to the City for all its inhabitants rather than just an embodiment of capitalism, with changes made to the benefit of the city’s elite whilst continuing the marginalization of the city’s economically and socially disadvantaged. At the same time with no action taken at all the current economic, social and environmental problems surrounding Nairobi’s Matatus will persist.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT project)

matatu routes created by the digital matatu project[26]

The Master plan for urban transport in Nairobi’s Metropolitan Area (NMA) for 2006 to 2025 recommends public transport development policies to help improve Matatu and bus services, and to strengthen the existing rail service and promote Transit Oriented development [15], given that such development would be significant because only 12% of the city’s population use private vehicles, and the remaining rely on public transport, including Matatus [27]. In 2015 the Bus Rapid Transit project was launched, aiming to put Nairobi as the 8th city in Africa to adopt such a system in the last 10 year. However, this project was heavily opposed by the Matatu owners, due to the fear that the new busses will take away their business [19]. Additionally, the nationally appropriate mitigation action (NAMA) programme in Kenya expects the BRT system to contribute a reduction of 2 million tons of Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) by 2030 [19]. The development of the BRT system is expected to increase reliability of transport, reduce travel time and cut pollution. Moreover, it is seen as a way to promote buses and solve urban transport congestion issues, as well as to offer transportation to the lower income population. However, it should be considered together with other improvements to address the situation such as an efficient railway system, and solutions that consider the wider metro region which encompasses 15 towns (Kiambu, Limuru, Machakos, Mavoko Ruiru, Thika, Kajiado, Karuri, Kikuyu, and Tala-Kangundo, Kiambu), in order to actually minimize congestion. Additionally work needs to be taken to ensure that the attempts to implement the BRT are done in conjunction with all stakeholders to minimise the issues seen with previous regulation attempts.

Digital Matatus Project

The Digital Matatu Project was done in collaboration between Kenyan and American Universities, and the technology sector in Nairobi. This project captured transit data and developed mobile routing applications and transit maps, which are free and available to the public via Ma3route, Flashcast sonar, digitalmatatu and matatumap. The available information has potential to change the way inhabitants of Nairobi navigate this semi-formal transit system[28].

Lessons Learned

Nairobi, like many cities in the global south, is dependent on a paratransit system. Matatus filled the gap left by formal public transportation and as one of the fastest-growing cities in the African continent Matatus have become essential for the city’s mobility and the economic activities of both the formal and informal sector. Other cities that also depend largely on informal transportation are Lagos, Bangkok, Manila and São Paulo.

Roads of Nairobi

Moreover, similar to many other African cities, the paratransit has shaped the transportation culture of the city. In Nairobi, Matatus are recognized for their loud and vibrant music and their graffiti-style artwork and represent much more than just a mode of transportation, they are part of the city’s identity. This has important implications to cities around the world in examining the importance of the informal sector to the fabric of urbanisation and locating that work outside of a flawed binary where only formal work has appreciated value.

The Matatu system in Nairobi is not without issues, and the solutions to them are not always clear, though Nairobi’s experience indicates that the strongest solutions to issues of mass transportation will be found in collaboration with all of the stakeholders and with recognition of the history of the city as whole. Moreover, as Nairobi has found with the BRT proposal, rarely will there be one solution alone that will solve any issue in its entirety and rather a number of solutions should be integrated, including bottom-up approaches, to achieve the best results.

Additionally, for transportation systems to reach their potential as catalysts of social mobility and the lungs of a city made for all of its inhabitants’, solutions to issues must be approached with consideration to how it will improve the system for those most economically and socially disadvantaged rather than purely as an economic stimulus.


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