In Summary
  • The issue with expanding roads is that more people buy cars in a private quest to solve a public problem.
  • Matatus do not guarantee safety, have no regular schedules, no fixed prices and no set number of passengers.
  • Kenyans who seek these conveniences in transport services have no other recourse but turn to personal cars.

How can Kenyan towns move large numbers of people efficiently, rapidly, cost-effectively and in relative comfort at all times?

This is the question that policymakers, transport and infrastructure planners should have been seeking answers to in the wake of the strike by matatus earlier this week.

It is a question that the government has failed to answer comprehensively and this has resulted in the gridlocks that have come to characterise virtually every major town in Kenya, from Mombasa to Meru, Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu.

The problem with expanding roads has been that Kenyans have been buying personal cars in increasing numbers in a private quest to solve a public transport problem.


Because matatus do not guarantee safety, have no regular schedules, no fixed prices and no set number of passengers, Kenyans who seek these conveniences in transport services have no other recourse but turn to personal cars, even if they have to incur debt to satisfy this need.

But if there is one lesson that the standard gauge railway should teach policymakers, urban planners and transport aficionados, it is that the market for regular, safe and reliable mass transit system remains untapped.

It is not for nothing that the SGR, despite the questions raised about its cost, has moved two million passengers in the short period it has been operating. Yet, this is just one line with no feeder system of inter-linked railway lines.

There is no reason why, for instance, counties like Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Kisumu and adjoining areas, where the old railway passes, cannot come together and put a regular train to work, connecting these regions to each other and to Nairobi, where they can be linked to the SGR.


Just doing this alone, say over the festive period when Kenyans travel en masse across the country, will not only serve to stabilise bus fares — a constant headache that Kenyans have to endure every time there is a holiday — it will also provide a large number of travellers with an option that is reliable and much safer than public service vehicles (PSVs).

In the past, for instance, it was possible for one to catch a train, say from Kenyatta University to Karatina and all the way to Nanyuki. Today, the only viable transport between Nairobi and the greater Mt Kenya region is the road, which narrows to a lane either way from the Kenol junction.

The result is that this road is clogged every weekend, a bad situation made worse by police road blocks and the occasional accident, such as the one involving a tanker that overturned atop the Sagana River Bridge, virtually cutting off that part of the country for an entire day.


Although a flight from Nairobi to Nyeri has been introduced, this will only address the top tier of the transport market, leaving the bottom of the pyramid at the mercy of the Nissan matatu since there are no buses that ply that part of the country besides Kensilver and Kenya Mpya.

And, whereas the former has a relatively sound safety record, the same cannot be said of the latter. It should come as a surprise that the Transport Ministry has only asked Kenya Railways to increase the frequency of commuter train services in the capital for the duration that matatus were on strike. What happens once the matatus are back on the road? Will that mean that the trains go back to their two trips a day schedule when clearly there is a market for regular services between the Central Business District and adjoining areas?

The problem with this thinking is that it assumes only regular workers need transport to take them to their jobs in the morning and back to their homes in the evening. This is the wrong model to premise a transport system on.


Public transport is for all people, including tourists, traders, idlers, fun-seekers, errand runners and all other people who, for one reason or another, need to move from one point to the next.

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