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Transportation

The Future of Nairobi's Informal Transit

BRT and light rail plans for Kenya’s capital will most likely leave the privately owned and much maligned matatus and boda-bodas behind. Their operators, however, won’t likely go away without a fight.
A Kenyan policeman boards a matatu after the vehicle was stopped for a traffic offense. “Every matatu driver has been in jail at least once,” says James Kariuki, a 20-year veteran of the industry.
A Kenyan policeman boards a matatu after the vehicle was stopped for a traffic offense. “Every matatu driver has been in jail at least once,” says James Kariuki, a 20-year veteran of the industry.Antony Njuguna/Reuters

Earlier this year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta inaugurated a new railway line connecting Nairobi to Mombasa, the single most traveled route in the country. Expected to carry several thousand passengers a day and cut the travel time between the country's two biggest cities from nine hours to four, the Madaraka Line garnered international headlines. While it may be the future of Kenya, it doesn't change much for the majority of citizens in the capital of Nairobi, which has some of the worst traffic in the world.

What keeps it from being even worse is the matatu—or privately owned shared bus. About 70 percent of the capital’s 1.3 million commuters use a matatu at some point every month for their commute. With the roads already snarled with traffic, one can only imagine the roads having three times as many private cars in their place. For the vast majority of Nairobi there is no public transport—four aging commuter lines run twice in the morning and once or twice in the evening, but their stops are few and far between and their capacity limited.