Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Matatu: Pirate Taxis... the perils of deregulated public transport

I was 5 in 1973. We lived in Kenya, my parents were teaching. The roads were absolutely treacherous. Among the most dangerous vehicles on the roads between Nairobi and Fort Hall where we lived were the buses. I was speaking recently with my brother about this... how exaggerated a vague childhood memory was all this. So I have been searching around. Numerous articles on the web discuss the Matatu/Matutu, essentially what started out as a Pirate Taxi company:

the following comes from a report on Regulated bus systems around the world.

In Nairobi, public transport services arepresently provided by:
- Kenya Bus Services (KBS)
- Nyayo Bus Services (NBS)
- Matutus KBS, like ZUPCO, used to operate under afranchise system and was the sole supplier ofpublic transport services until matutus werelegalised and now they face competition fromNBS. KBS Is 75 percent owned by a U-K companyand 25 percent by Nairobi City Council. NB$ isa Government of Kenya run parastatal companyand matutus "are privately owned small scaletransporters of commuters, they represent anintermediate form of public transport service between the conventional bus and taxi" (Obudhoand Aduno, 1992).

Matutus were legalised as a form of public transport by Presidential decree in 1973, formerlythey operated as 'pirate taxis'. In 1973 they carried 16% of passengers travelling in Nairobi compared with 84% 66 by KBS but by 1990 the Matatu market share had risen to 52%, KBSS had declined to 42% and NBS carried just 6% as theyoperate mainly during peak hours.

Since their legalisation matutus have been an object of persistent public criticism and are viewed as -unruly, hazardous and anuneconomical means of travel" and they havebeen accused of 'being the cause of mostdreadful accidents and performing the mostchaotic operations" (Obudho and Aduwo, 1992).They have been identified with over-speeding,overloading, continuous hooting and touting for passengers. chaotic parking, harassment and abuse of passengers and general disregardfor normal traffic rules.Matutus tend to operate just prior to conventional bus services so capturingpassengers and major market share. Integration of services has not occurred rather fiercecompetition predominates. Gradually individualownership has given way to fleet ownership which may lead to uncontrollable excesses ofthe matatu being minimised."

There's also this great bulletin from the WHO:

Kenya's bus drivers go back to school

Next door to the United Republic of Tanzania (see adjacent "reflectors" story), reckless drivers of Kenya's "matatu" buses, who help make Kenya's roads 20 times more dangerous than Britain's, are to go back to driving school to improve their skills.

"They are unsafe and reckless" passenger Musyoka Makau told BBC reporter Andrew Harding. "It's a lack of responsibility". According to Harding "a morbid, macho culture" has prompted many matatu owners to paint names like "Chechnya," "Aggression," "Monica Lewinsky," "Upsetter," and "Why Drive When You Can Fly?" on the vehicles.

Now with British funding special one day courses are being held for all of Kenya's estimated 16 000 matatu drivers, Harding reported. "What is the brake for?" instructor Daniel Muchai asks a classroom full of young men. Silence ... Then a cautious volunteer suggests "to slow the vehicle?"
"We're trying to teach them the need to be responsible," Dickson Mbugua, who owns two matatus, and is also chairman of the Matatu Welfare Association, explaining to the BBC. "The course will teach them first aid too — and explain about the effects of driving when taking drink or drugs. We hope it will cut down the number of deaths on the roads."

A Matatu bus... looking a bit like Ken Kesey's wagon, drawn by some doom metal adolescent.

So where does all this lead.... Well I am thinking flash forward 20 years, a globally warmed, oil compromised Western Avenue... a road movie, part "Vanishing Point" part "Hell Drivers", where battling rival pirate bus companies fight it out on the flyovers... filmed in 1970s style Ektachrome colours, the film treated and collaged like a Peter Beard photograph: The Mangled Destinies Of Carriages And Men (cf... the mingled destinies of crocodiles and men)

Beard style:

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