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Are city matatus heading the wrong way?


To many Kenyans, matatus seem to have lost their copy of the Michuki rules and are slowly sliding back into the madness of yesteryear. But SIMON KIMUTAI, the chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, does not think so. He spoke to Jeckonia Otieno.

What is the biggest problem with public transport in Nairobi?

Our pattern of life is the biggest problem. We report to work at eight in the morning, children report to school at eight, businesses open at eight, and everything else starts at eight. All these activities end at five, leading to clogged roads every morning and evening.

Why is the public transport sector associated with chaos?

Public transport was for a very long time informal, free-for-all, and was like a carcass attracting scavengers, which gave it a bad name that we are still grappling with. People would graduate from tout to conductor to driver and a culture brewed due to non-regulation.

Has anything changed?

There are a few controls that have been put in place and now we have vetting for those who want to join and the fact that they can only join through saccos has brought a bit of sanity, though we are still not where we would like to be.

What gaps remain in the sector?

There is still no control at entry into the service, which has led to more players and vehicles that are unplanned for. It has attracted policemen, criminal gangs, and money launderers.

Some challenges?

More players in the industry means cut-throat competition, which has led to fluctuating prices and road crashes as operators rush to outdo one another to get passengers. And because it is a business that pays taxes, nobody can afford to get into the CBD and leave without passengers because that would lead to losses. This leads to clogging up of the roads. Thus revenues are diminished due to saturation.

What is the impact of this on insurance policies?

Insurance overheads have increased and premiums are quite high. A comprehensive insurance scheme for a 33-seater, for instance, goes for Sh650,000. Bearing in mind that most vehicle owners have taken loans to buy the vehicles, many face the auctioneers.

Are regulators not doing enough?

The National Transport and Safety Authority has now gone to the roads. Yes, it has come up with rules that vehicles operate in saccos, which is meant to improve self-regulation, but there are police officers on the roads who are only there to collect money. Some routes have to pay some amount per vehicle to police without which they face harassment. Police officers have put structures in place to get money from this business.

How qualified are matatu drivers?

We have a problem with training. Railways, airplanes, and marine services have government schools, but the road sector is left to private investors. A matatu driver should have a PSV licence after four years of having a normal driving licence. Problem is that the driver can get the normal licence and go to the farm as they wait for four years to elapse so that they can get a PSV licence. This means they have no experience which the four years is supposed to offer.

Rogue crews claim the vehicles belong to senior police officers, why?

That, in the first place, is conflict of interest. A regulator cannot enforce the same laws on his own business. However, it should be known that with proper capacity building, the matatu sector can self-regulate.

Why did the much-touted pay card system fail?

The government hijacked it. It was my idea but they would hold meetings and not invite me. Then there was the scramble among financial institutions that wanted to control the money flowing through the card. It was bound to fail.

There are still matatus carrying standing passengers.

Passengers must know that in the unfortunate event that there is a road crash, only seated passengers are compensated. But if a vehicle is overloaded and it is involved in a crash, how would you determine who was seated or who was not? In any case, it could be the standing passenger who could lodge a complaint first for compensation. Passengers must learn to speak out against rogue crews because the law protects them.

How can we end the traffic snarl-ups in the CBD?

Nairobi needs to completely stop the flow of private vehicles into the city centre. But this can only happen if there is a reliable public transport sector. This could be boosted if we have a rapid bus transit system, which would stop matatus from getting into the CBD as well.

Has devolution helped in any way?

Counties have done the matatu sector a great disservice. The vehicles that ply between counties have to pay tax to each individual county, which only adds to the overheads and leads to transfer of costs to commuters.

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