In praise of matatus – Increasing affluence risks strangling a market-driven system that works
Sep 12th 2015 Economist
On the edge of Kangemi, a slum to the west of Nairobi’s city centre, next to stalls selling T-shirts, sandals and second-hand mobile phones, is a busy minibus terminal. A dozen matatu minibuses jostle for space in spectacular paint jobs promoting Premier League football teams, film stars and Jesus Christ. As new vehicles arrive their conductors lean out of the doors shouting out destinations and fares. To an outsider it seems chaotic, and yet locals know exactly how it works. When a bus is full, it departs, and the next moves up.
Matatus are the primary means of getting around Nairobi. According to one estimate, seven out of ten people use them to get to work in Kenya’s hectic capital. Similar minibuses operate across Africa. In Lagos, they are called danfos and painted bright yellow; in Addis Ababa, “blue donkeys”. They are not comfortable: passengers are packed in like sardines. Nor are they always safe. Pickpockets, crashes and highway robberies are all too common. But they provide a remarkably effective and cheap public transport system at no cost to the government. This is now under threat from a by-product of growing affluence that is affecting cities across Africa—the rise of the private car.
Unlike bus systems in the West, matatus are neither run by a government monopoly nor by a number of large firms. Instead they tend to be owned by entrepreneurs, who pick routes and lease the vehicles out to pairs of drivers and conductors. These teams, in red and blue uniforms, work long hours to get the most out of their vehicles—typically starting at 4am.
Competition is fierce (hence the colourful paintwork). And pricing is, as one Kenyan blogger puts it, “more emotional than the stockmarket”. When passengers are few, fares are cheap: perhaps 10 Kenyan shillings (about $0.10) for a ride. However, at rush hour, or when it is raining, they multiply three or four times. Such surge pricing is as unpopular among matatu riders as it is among users in Western cities of Uber, a fast-growing taxi service.
This decentralised system produces a well-organised result. Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University enlisted a team of Kenyan students to map Nairobi’s matatu routes. She discovered that the network in many ways resembles a public-transport system in the West, albeit one without subsidised routes. Buses mostly go from suburbs to the city centre; connections are made in an enormous scrum there, as crosstown routes are rarer than in the West.
For now matatus can still make sense even for people who can afford a car. In the back of one, Anisia Wanja, a marketing director, explains that she owns a car but does not always use it, because parking is too expensive. Nairobi’s traffic gets notably worse at the end of the month, as many drivers can only afford petrol just after payday. But as Kenya gets wealthier and the roads get slower, the danger and crush of a ride in a matatuappeals less.
Car ownership is soaring. According to figures from the Kenya Revenue Authority, between 2004 and 2013 the number of new cars registered in the country each year has more than tripled. The number of new licences issued to public-transport vehicles correspondingly fell (see chart). Cars may be safer and a lot more comfortable, but they use vastly more road space than a single matatu passenger. Spending on roads in Kenya has risen, but nobody thinks traffic has got better. “These days, there is no way to avoid traffic”, says John Kariuki, a taxi driver, as workers nearby scrub his Toyota. “No matter how big they make the roads, they just fill up again”.
Without change, Nairobi and other African cities risk becoming like Mexico City or São Paulo (where traffic is so bad the rich get around by helicopter). The trouble is that politicians like to spend money on glamorous elevated highways, which encourage car ownership, while thematatus that use lesser roads to pick up and drop off are neglected. Big projects come with greater opportunities for extracting kickbacks; they also appeal to a class of politicians that expects a plush Mercedes and a personal parking space. But they do little to solve the problems faced by matatus. Besides congestion, the biggest concern is security: police often harass drivers, extracting fines for minor infractions, but they do little to stop the criminals who hijack buses and rob their passengers. African leaders need to spend more time on the buses.