On matatus, Sonko should not fear to disappoint

Sunday September 24 2017

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
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The share of the world’s population living in cities recently surpassed the 50 per cent mark, by some estimates.

UN-Habitat projected in a 2016 report that by 2030, the urban population of developing countries will double, while the area covered by cities could triple.

Kenya may be a developed country by then, but if not, the move by Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko to try and reorganise the commuter experience in Nairobi and find long term solutions is opportune.

A number of things happen when cities anywhere in the world become overpopulated, and debate is still ongoing as to what the optimum population for a city is. They become overwhelming to manage.

The immediate result is permanent gridlock, for example in traffic, city staff, drainage, infrastructure and stakeholder interactions.

The next problem in developing countries is the sprouting of informal settlements, which if not properly managed - and often they are not - can host more than half of a particular city’s population, and an equal number of challenges.

Well-run cities usually have a dedicated long-term plan to deal with sanitation, housing, land use and transportation, the last of which has a number of components, such as infrastructure, fleet management, and commuter experience and stakeholder management.

Whereas different nodes within a city may have different groups of stakeholders, the city centre has a large myriad of these that include practically ‘everyone’. Nairobi's CBD for example has the business community, central government, commuters, motorists, the county government, tourist and other international partners – practically everyone is a stakeholder. People living and working on the streets can also be considered stakeholders.

As such, the county government has to think long and hard on its stakeholder management strategies as it has to do what is right for the city, even if half or even 80 per cent of the stakeholders end up criticising it. Governor Sonko must plan way beyond the five-year term that the people of Nairobi have granted him.

CITY BALANCE SHEET

Matatus are one of those situations in which proper management may leave some stakeholders unhappy, as long-term policy issues are thought through and implemented.  

The matatu industry is one of the most creative in this country, constantly finding new ways to operate outside traffic regulations. City streets are not a parking lot for matatus at any time of day or night, no matter how long the issue is debated.

According to the Matatu Owners Association, there are 30,000 matatus operating in Nairobi. Although it is not quite clear how many of these have access to the city centre, that number is way too high.

The fact that public service employees, including police and politicians, are allowed in law to operate businesses does not help the situation. In some instances, matatu owners become the government, investors and the regulators of their own industry, which is not tenable for other city stakeholders.

Parking for private motorists should remain at a premium, the logic being that if you can drive a personal car into the city daily, then you can afford to pay for your car to wait for you all day.

The county needs income to deal with sanitation, communications, health, housing and other equally important city matters. Revenue collected from parking on a daily basis, if eliminated, would be a great loss for the city balance sheet. Unless the public would like to pay higher taxes to cater for the revenue gap, parking for private motorists should remain in place.  

IMPERMEABLE CARTELS

Nairobi lacks underground train or tram systems, so we are stuck with bus transportation. The county government can engage with one of its major stakeholders and partners – the national government – to improve transport infrastructure.

That includes bus parks, bike lanes, more parking for private motorists and a subsidised city transportation system. There is no reason, for example, why Machakos Bus Park cannot be multi-level, with buses taking underground and ground parking while matatus occupy other levels.

Privatisation does not always work for public benefit. In many instances, it simply enriches a few, creates impermeable cartels and allows the government to evade responsibility for the prestige of our capital city.

In cities where it works well, public transportation is scheduled by time. Commuters have to fit their own schedules to those of the bus or train, or just walk.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa