Tags

By Wallace Kantai
Posted Monday, November 4 2013 at 18:34
IN SUMMARY
Everyone calling for a return of a Michuki figure to
tame the ‘public’ transport sector in Kenya has their
heart in the right place, but their intellectual rigour
may not have come along
The explanation for my heresy lies in those little
quotation marks around the word ‘public’
The mass transportation industry in Kenya is
anything but public, and therein lies the reason
urban transport in Kenya cannot be tamed using
current structures and methods
If ever there was a recently-departed Kenyan slated
for ‘secular’ sainthood, the long-serving
administrator and politician John Michuki would
surely be it.
He served for five and a half decades at the helm of
many public and private institutions, but he will
forever be remembered with gratitude for the
accomplishments of a few months of his public life.
His signature public transportation reforms at the
beginning of 2004 turned the matatu industry upside
down, and brought a certain measure of safety and
order to the infamously chaotic sector.
I’m afraid, though, that Michuki’s deification may be
premature and not fully deserved.
And thus, also, everyone calling for a return of a
Michuki figure to tame the ‘public’ transport sector in
Kenya has their heart in the right place, but their
intellectual rigour may not have come along.
The explanation for my heresy lies in those little
quotation marks around the word ‘public’.
The mass transportation industry in Kenya is
anything but public, and therein lies the reason
urban transport in Kenya cannot be tamed using
current structures and methods.
Anyone who tried using matatus in February 2004
remembers the nightmare. Mr Michuki had dug in
(and gamely tried on a seat belt in one of the few
complying matatus – but then quickly jumped into
his Mercedes on his way to the office).
Matatu owners and crews were also sullenly dag into
their positions, saying that the new rules were
expensive to comply with, and would lead to a
lowering of profits or an increase in fares. And
indeed, fares rose (the little detail public memory
tends to forget about the era).
The fact that Mr Michuki won (and that we’re back
trying to recreate his methods) speaks less about the
incompetence of current administrators than to the
contradiction at the heart of the matatu sector.
This contradiction is that matatus are privately
owned, yet we demand public outcomes from them.
This is something that no amount of legislation, good
wishes or pronouncement can ever solve.
Matatus are crucial in urban areas. They transport
millions of people daily, keeping the economy
humming along. Young people in education
institutions would not be able to go to school without
access to readily-available, relatively inexpensive and
reasonably reliable vehicles to transport them.
However, we make demands on matatus that cannot
be met when they are run by operators whose
primary aim is to make profits. We ask that they are
available at any time (early in the morning and late
and when there’s little demand for them).
We ask that they are present where they are needed
(including at stops and on routes where there may be
minimal demand).
Supply and demand
We want them to be reasonably driven (that is, no
rushing about with the aim of maximising revenue at
the times of peak demand).
We complain when they respond to economic forces
of supply and demand and raise or lower fares
according to the prevailing circumstances.
Nairobi and Mombasa made a crucial, donor-driven
mistake when they got rid of publicly-owned and –
funded urban transport sectors.
Gikuyu slang for the old Kenya Bus Services was
‘muthubari’ (a corruption of the English term
‘municipality’), which is how the vehicles were owned
and run.
I have been in the Washington DC area for the past
week or so, observing how the Reston and Herndon,
Virginia urban areas are run. The area, which is one
of the wealthiest in the US, is full of technology
companies, financiers and federal government
contractors.
The highways are full of Porsches, Audis, Mercedeses,
BMWs and (luxury, electric) Teslas. But everyone I
have spoken to, from US Congressmen down to city
managers and business owners (the very people who
own the luxury vehicles) is bursting with pride about
the new, multibillion-dollar subway system that will
serve the area and onward to the Dulles Airport
nearby.
They all profess that one of the key things that will
keep the Northern Virginia Technology Corridor
competitive is the fact that the workers, investors
and government-types who frequent the area will be
able to hop onto the train.
The area will thus be able to stave off competitors
from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and (now,
increasingly) Africa.
Yet, in Kenya, there has been no serious thought by
county governments of setting up a model urban
transport sector owned and run publicly.
The national government is also tinkering around the
edges of managing urban transport, making the fatal
error of seeking public benefits from private
providers.
I propose that we put the canonisation of John
Michuki on hold, until someone recognises that what
he accomplished was a tiny bit of a much larger
revolution.
Mr Kantai is business editor at NTV

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.

Advertisements