Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Matatus are not the (only) problem

A few years ago, when the gods of the public service were feeling super-philanthropic, I stayed in two Australian cities, Sydney and Perth, and had the good fortune of being showered with taxicab vouchers by my hosts because they thought I was a good egg. Or something. Funny thing, though: I took a taxicab only once and only because I was on my way to the airport and couldn't figure out where to catch the bus from where I was staying at the time.
What struck me about the public transport infrastructure in both New South Wales and Western Australia was how un-fussy it was. Both cities had commuter trains, buses and taxicabs. But it went further than that too. The road design integrated all road users, including private motorists, motorcyclists, commercial transporters, bicyclists and, crucially, pedestrians. The infrastructure was organised in such a way that it was accessible, predictable and safe.
I have had the privilege of living in Nairobi most of my life and of having stayed in Mombasa, Malindi, Kisumu, Machakos and Nakuru. What is certain is that the public infrastructure in these five towns is not accessible, predictable or safe. The recent fatal crash on the Magadi Road from the Bomas of Kenya to the Republic of Rongai illustrate this fact starkly. The problem is not that matatus are a law unto themselves; the problem is that the system is not designed to operate as efficiently, effectively or safely as possible. It is designed to make a fast shilling in the shortest possible time, safety be damned.

Public transport in the cities of Perth and Sydney are publicly-funded transport systems. They lose money, for sure, but both New South Wales and Perth are wealthy enough to subsidise the public transport system. Because they're publicly-funded, they are much easier to regulate. In both cities buses are of a standard design, operate at a standard speed (40kph), have dedicated lanes along some routes and are safe and predictable.

If we are to "restore sanity in the transport sector" as some have suggested, a few hard questions must be asked. Do the county governments of Nairobi City, Mombasa, Kisumu, Machakos, Kilifi or Nakuru have the capital to not only nationalise the public transport sector but also to subsidise it once the cities and towns are in charge? Second, do the county governments have the capital to redesign the public transport infrastructure to incorporate all users effectively and safely? Finally, what will the county governments do with the ensuing joblessness in the public transport sector once they nationalise public transport?

The challenges we face in public transport in Kenya are complex mix of the liberal politics of the early 1990s in which many public sectors were liberalised or privatised, including public transport, economic austerity that drastically reduced the total amount of public investment in such areas as public transport, the explosion of the car-owning classes without a commensurate expansion in the facilities available to them and a toxic mix of bribe-givers and bribe-takers, especially when it came to the enforcement of "petty" laws such as the Traffic Act.

Contrary to popular myth, John Michuki didn't improve the safety or reputation of the public transport sector; he used a bandaid to stanch the haemorrhage. His draconian measures only concerned one aspect of public transport: matatus and their crews. But because it was not an integrated solution covering all the aspects of public transport, it was bound to fail. The Magadi Road fatalities and the riots that they generated are Mr Michuki's true legacy. Until we confront all the challenges the sector faces, not even the most draconian penalties will make the system better. So far, Evans Kidero, Ali Hassan Joho, Alfred Mutua, Jack Ranguma, Amason Kingi and Kinuthia Mbugua, and their enablers in the national government, James Macharia and Joseph Nkaissery, have yet to grasp the enormity of the challenges or to do anything about them.

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