Thursday, May 04, 2017

First improve the transport system we have

We didn't ask Sonko questions like zoning laws, revenue collection, parks and social halls, playgrounds and county schools for our kids, public transport (surely, surely, mathrees need to go. A city like Nairobi should have have a viable public bus network like yesterday). Wandia Njoya, Facebook
Nairobi once had public transport that was efficient, effective and, mostly, affordable. It was part-owned by the Government and it was known as the Kenya Bus Service Corporation*. The fares we paid to ride KBS were controlled by the Government. Because of its size and the price-controls, the gypsy minibuses and vans couldn't compete with KBS on fares; instead, they competed on speed, distance, comfort and entertainment.

Matatus were popular alternatives to the KBS in Eastlands, especially along Jogoo Road up to the City Stadium and Industrial Area, or up to Pumwani, Gikomba and Kariokor, connecting Embakasi, Doonholm, Umoja, Kariobangi South, Harambee, Buru Buru, Jamhuri, Jerusalem, Kimathi, Shauri Moyo, Jericho, Makadara and Maringo. KBS had a monopoly on the Central Bus Station, and the Ambassadeur Hotel, KENCOM and GPO stages. So far as I can remember, it also had termini in Kangemi, Kawangware, Pumwani and Umoja II. Matatus, on the other hand, were only allowed to operate out of that zone bordered by Ronald Ngala Street, Tom Mboya Street, and Kirinyaga Road, with popular termini along Accra Road, at the Globe Cinema Roundabout, the Nairobi Fire Station, next to Odeon Cinema and near the Khoja Mosque.

The principal provider of public transport was the KBS while matatus were alternatives for short distances only. KBS was organised and operated on a schedule that allowed one to plan her itinerary without worry. You could move from Umoja II to Kawangware using, at most two buses, because you were certain of the fare and the timetable and you didn't have to worry about being late. But what made the KBS perfect were the price controls by the City Council of Nairobi (which part-owned the KBS).

The liberalisation of public transport changed all this. First, the City Council discontinued price-controls and the KBS hiked its fares. Second, it lost its monopoly to the Central Bus Station and the Ambassadeur Hotel, KENCOM and GPO stages. Third, the national government undermined the KBS model by running for brief period the Nyayo Bus Service Corporation which charged even lower fares than the KBS because of subsidies offered by the national government. (The Nyayo Bus collapsed because it became an instrument of grand corruption.) Finally, matatus were licensed to operate on all the routes that the KBS used to operate on. There was a brief period when the KBS introduced the innovative Shuttle in the early 2000s to compete against matatus, but its debts finally put paid to it as a going concern and it underwent a management buyout. It has since then sold off most of its real estate and operates in the same competitive environment and in the same pricing model as the rest of the matatu sector. It is a bus company in name only; in all respects, it is a matatu operator with large-capacity buses.

Today, operators of large fleets of public service vehicles use a hybrid model: they own a set number of buses and mini-buses and offer franchises to individuals. These include the KBS Management Services (former managers who bought out the last owners of the KBS), Double M, Citi Hoppa and City Shuttle. These large operators maintain a semblance of standards. However, they compete against vastly larger single-vehicle operators, the living embodiment of the matatu spirit, who mostly operate 14-seat vans and 29-seat mini-buses. All operators compete for passengers and access to termini and stages. None operates on a set schedule. Many operate with uncertain fares, with a floor below which they cannot charge. Recent statutory changes require these single-vehicle operators to join Savings and Credit Co-operatives to instill some form of discipline in the sector, but as tragedies along Magadi Road have demonstrated in recent months, this hasn't helped much.

Hard as it is to imagine, Nairobi will not be nationalising public transport any time soon; it simply doesn't have the capital or the managerial expertise to successfully run a public transport network. However, it still retains the mandate to operate a public transport system. It has a mandate to make laws and, if properly overseen, to rebuild and expand the existing infrastructure. Nairobi's laws on public transport are a mess; so too are the laws enforced by the National Transport Safety Authority. There are too many unsafe vehicles posing as PSVs and many PSVs are operated dangerously. If we are to have the public transport system that we believe we are entitled to, our government and government agencies must ensure that the laws under which the system will operate are well-thought out and enforced firmly but fairly.

None of the men and women seeking public office in Nairobi seems to have credible plans or ideas to improve the state of affairs. All of them have made vague proposals about "mass transit" and the number of new large-capacity buses or trams they will buy. They are yet to give us an explanation of what is wrong with the current system and what can be done to improve it. Neither, it seems, are the voters who are demanding "a viable public bus network like yesterday".


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