The number of 14-seater matatus on the roads will reduce after a government directive to phase out the vehicles resulted in a sharp decline in new registrations.
The registration of the public service vehicles dropped by 82.7 per cent last year with only 78 vehicles registered compared to 451 vehicles in 2011.
This number has witnessed a gradual decline since 2008 when the directive was first issued, forcing investors to buy vehicles that can transport more passengers.
“The registration of mini buses/matatus dropped substantially as a result of suspension of Transport Licensing Board (TLB) licences of 14-seater public service vehicles popularly known as Nissan matatus,” the 2013 Economic Survey released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics noted.
This has, however, opened the floodgates for the proliferation of alternative means of transport, eliciting anger and cries of unfair competition from matatu owners. According to them, a vacuum has been created which is fast being filled by smaller vehicles like the Toyota Probox – five-seater saloons that are notorious for squeezing up to 14 passengers in any available space, including the boot.
“This isn’t a good move at all,” said the chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, Mr Simon Kimutai.
According to Mr Kimutai, the registration of Proboxes has shot up and, while they are fast replacing 14-seater matatus, the government is not earning any licence fees from them given that they operate without regulation and without licensing from the Traffic Licensing Board.
“Demand for transport keeps increasing and the government needs to undertake a careful study on what kinds of vehicles are needed on certain routes. The Proboxes are operating unregulated on some routes and we want the government to crack down on them,” he said.
He added: “How do you explain the ridicule of our grandmothers, mothers and other people being stuffed into the boots of Proboxes like goods?”
According to the Economic Survey 2013, the number of newly registered saloon cars and station wagons increased by 17.8 per cent (from 11,026 in 2011 to 12,985 in 2012) and 27.8 per cent (from 31,199 in 2011 to 39,862 in 2012) respectively.
The report also shows that earnings from passenger traffic in 2012 rose to Sh205 billion compared to 2011. But the Matatu Drivers and Conductors Welfare Association (MDCWA) said it was still difficult for members to join the business as owners and not employees.
“We want to qualify from being workers to being owners, which is possible with lower capacity vehicles,” MDCWA national chairman Samson Wainaina said.
“But by removing the 14-seater vehicles, saying they are of low (carrying) capacity, the government has now opened the way for even lower capacity vehicles like Proboxes,” Mr Wainaina argued.
He identified the most affected areas as North Eastern, Rift Valley, Central, Nyanza and Western Kenya regions.
But while the number of the 14-seater vehicles registered in the last five years has plunged, registration for higher passenger capacity vehicles has increased marginally to 1,638 last year from 1,662 registered in 2011. Despite this, the total number of licences issued by the TLB to matatus increased by 1.3 per cent partly “due to the government’s decision to put on hold the policy of phasing out of 14-seater PSVs,” the report reads in part.
The TLB, which had halted the registration of the 14-seaters, backtracked and said the process would continue but the vehicles would not be allowed in towns to ease congestion. Instead, the vehicles would only be allowed to operate in rural and peri-urban routes.
Last year, the government had proposed the complete phasing out of 14-seaters in favour of buses and mini-buses with a larger carrying capacity but was forced to shelf the idea following street protests.
The operators of 14-seaters said that the move would not only render hundreds of thousands of youths working in the sector jobless, but also make it expensive for them to make the transition.
Others also argued that they were still servicing loans used to buy their vehicles and removing them from the roads arbitrarily would see them incurring huge losses.
Sector players also argued that the government had not considered other viable ways of reducing congestion in the city.
“We had asked the government to build four main four-storeyed parking lots in different parts of the city that would accommodate the smaller and bigger capacity vehicles, stalls for hawkers and display shops,” said Mr Wainaina.