The challenges of urban mobility in Nairobi, Kenya

Lorraine Amollo Ambole
University of Nairobi, Kenya

Deep down, I always knew there was a method to the madness of Nairobi matatus, and now I have the evidence!

Let me start from the beginning: I have lived in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, for more than 30 years. I have spent well over 10 of those years traversing the city using matatus.  Matatus are privately owned public service vehicles (PSVs), which are usually 14 or 25 seater vans and minibuses. The word matatu is said to have come from ‘tatu’, which is Swahili for three. Apparently, the first matatus in the 1960s used to charge three cents for a ride.

figure 1
Figure 1: Matatus in a busy street in Nairobi’s Central Business District . Source: Author

Paratransit matatus became even more common in the 1970s when they were officially recognised by the government.
Hitherto, they were operating illegally while competing with the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) that was established in 1934, and granted a monopoly on public transport in 1966 by Nairobi city council. From around 2003, KBS began facing financial troubles because its high-capacity buses were not allowed to carry standing passengers anymore. The banning of standing passengers was a new regulation by the government in an attempt to curb the high number of casualties in road accidents in the country. What added to KBS woes,  is the government’s move to introduce the Nyayo Bus Service, which was a subsidised corporation and thus could charge cheaper fares than KBS.  However, the Nyayo Bus Service was poorly managed and collapsed in 1992. KBS on the other hand, was transformed into a franchising and management company that currently operates 25 seater mini-buses, which cannot adequately serve the whole city. Matatus have therefore became all the more popular by cashing in on the mismanagement of the Kenyan transport sector.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Commuter pain index. Source: IBM 2011 Commuter Pain Survey report

Fast-forward to 2015: Matatus are still the most common form of motorised transport in the city. However, we commuters have a love-hate relationship with these vehicles. We love matatus as the ubiquitous urban symbol in Kenya, but we hate that they contribute to Nairobi’s high ranking on IBM’s commuter pain index.

For me, the most painful aspect of being a commuter in Nairobi is waiting in long queues at peak-hours. In off-peak hours, it’s the matatus that queue for commuters, and so the matatu conductors have to shout themselves hoarse to attract passengers.  Matatu conductors are colloquially referred to as Makangas. Their job is to collect fares and to give you directions. No wonder I always get lost in other cities like Cape Town, where I have to rely on my own                                                                                                                               rudimentary map-reading skills instead of an all-knowing Makanga.

Figure 3
Figure 3: A matatu conductor in uniform. Source: Author

Until recently, each matatu was owned by an individual or group, who were then left to their own devices. It was therefore not uncommon for matatu fares to change on a whim. I remember once paying 20 shillings in the morning and then having to cough out an extra 80 shillings that evening for the same distance just because it was raining. Now, you better not get caught in Nairobi traffic when it rains. A trip that would normally take you an hour or so will easily turn into a five-hour nightmare, and occasionally having to exit the vehicle with you nowhere near your destination. This is because Nairobi is notorious for flooding, due to its very poor drainage. The dreaded El Niño rains might make things even worse these coming months. I plan to carry around a small emergency kit during the El Niño season, just in case I have to spend the night in a matatu.

I started off by saying that there is a method to the madness: a recent mapping of matatu routes revealed that the routes are not as haphazard as they seem. Despite the informal development of those routes, they actually conform to a network similar to what you would find in meticulously-planned transport systems in Berlin, Toronto, or San Francisco! Or so says Transit App. In this regard, the Digital Matatu project has produced the first comprehensive visualisation of Nairobi’s matatu route system. The project is a collaboration between American and Kenyan universities, whose vision is to use technology to make public transit in emerging cities more visible and efficient.  The mobile routing applications and transit maps developed by the project are freely available to Nairobi commuters.

There are also a number of other Technology-For-Transport (TFT) innovations that are aimed at improving mobility in Nairobi, such as: ma3route, which is a crowd-sourcing platform for transport data; My1963card, which is a cashless payment system for Matatus; and Maramoja or Mytaxi, which are taxi-hailing services. Uber has also been launched in Nairobi, while many other digital TFT start-ups are in the works, as they take advantage of Kenya’s internet penetration, which is reported to offer the highest bandwidth per person in Africa, with the lowest internet rates in the continent.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Nairobi matatu routes: pocket map. Source: Digital Matatus

In my case, I learnt to navigate the chaos that is Nairobi matatu routes simply by using common sense. Matatus pick and drop passengers wherever is most suitable, sometimes with a total disregard for designated bus stops. In fact, for a little extra money, you could get a matatu that is willing to change its route entirely for your convenience.

But the government is of course not sitting idly by. There are plans to change mobility in Nairobi, which alone generates over 50% of Kenya’s GDP. First off, all matatus are now required to belong to a co-operative or route association. The associations are then tasked with ensuring that their members adhere to the public service vehicle rules and regulations. The Nairobi county government in particular has a grand agenda to improve mobility through its ‘Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Masterplan’ of 2014-2030 (NIUPLAN). The master plan sets down ambitious targets for transforming the transport network in Nairobi. In partnership with the World Bank, the European Union, the African Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Kenyan government has also made plans for a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS). Additionally, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy has proposed a gold-standard, Transport Oriented Development strategy for the city.  In my case, I learnt to navigate the chaos that is Nairobi matatu routes simply by using common sense. Matatus pick and drop passengers wherever is most suitable, sometimes with a total disregard for designated bus stops. In fact, for a little extra money, you could get a matatu that is willing to change its route entirely for your convenience.

So what does this mean for commuters like me? Of course I will always be nostalgic for a music-blaring, graffitied, wi-fied matatu (yes, some do have Wi-Fi). But, my desire for quick, comfortable public transportation easily outweighs my sentimentality.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Graffitied Matatu. Source: Author

Unfortunately, driving my own car isn’t a viable solution. If anything, as more and more middle-class Kenyans are able to afford their own personal cars, they end up causing more problems than they fix by adding congestion to the city’s streets. I for one stopped driving because I couldn’t continue competing with matatu drivers, who I always imagine would do well in the Formula One circuit. Their favourite driving method is ‘overlapping’, which consists of driving into any available space and terrorising transportation and pedestrians alike until they get out of the way. After a few too many tense commutes, I decided that it makes more sense to listen to my French lessons in a matatu, than to give myself a heart attack as I try to manoeuvre in between a matatu and a Mombasa-bound truck.

Walking would be good if it was safe. In fact, most of the 3.2 million people in Nairobi get around by walking since they can’t afford matatus. However, pedestrian accidents are extremely common, and road accidents in general are claimed to be the number one killer in the country after Malaria and HIV/AIDS. Despite these statistics, walking within Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) is the only sensible thing to do. Even matatus find it hard to get through the gridlocked CBD, which everyone tries to get into in the morning, and tries to leave in the evening. Many large businesses have already moved out of the CBD and into emerging hubs like Westlands and Upper Hill.

Figure 6
Figure 6: A personal car within the Nairobi Central Business District. Source: Author

As a lover of Nairobi, I would like to see even more decentralisation that takes advantage of mixed-use development strategies to calm traffic and reduce roadway emissions. We also need quality, non-motorised transport modes that will attract the middle and upper classes, hence reducing the growing need for private cars. The poor, who comprise a majority in the city, will have better access to services and livelihood opportunities. In a more hybridised transport system, our famed matatus could also be integrated into a wider network of regulated and inclusive services. In this way, we might reclaim our title as the ‘Green City in the Sun’ or as the Maasai call it: Enkare Nairobi (Cool water).


Lorraine Amollo Ambole is a tutorial fellow at the School of Arts and Design at the University of Kenya in Nairobi.  She is also a PhD Candidate at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Header Image: Nairobi Railway Station.  Credit: Xiaojun Deng/


4 thoughts on “The challenges of urban mobility in Nairobi, Kenya

  1. I am than glad that to be in South Africa and specifically in Cape Town,Stellenbosch where the traffic is not so dangerous!

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