Across East Africa, public transport remains synonymous with chaos and disarray: The fare is not predictable, the vehicles are in a poor conditions and hardly keep time.
However, Rwanda has managed to instill order, reliability and predictability in public transport particularly in the capital Kigali through enforcement of transport rules and deployment of high-capacity buses.
In Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam, chaos, impunity and disorder reign supreme making the lives of commuters a daily encounter with the bad and ugly of public transport.
“Public transport sector in Kenya is desperately crying for redemption,” said Jeremiah Otieno, a commuter in Nairobi.
In Kenya, the government is working on a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system with the first batch of 64 buses expected in the coming weeks.
The system is aimed at reducing traffic congestion in Nairobi, where daily commuters are about 1.5 million.
Scepticism, however, surround the BRT system on its ability to revert public transport to its glorious days under the Kenya Bus Service and Nyayo Bus Services in the mid-1990s.
While the government is trying to wrest public transport from the vicious grip of private sector operators, technology firms are leading a drive to bring sanity in the sector.
Taxi-hailing firm Little Cab, for example, is deploying technology with the launch of shuttle services.
“What Little Shuttle is offering is part of the redemption. However, it needs scaling up to have impact,” added Otieno who has become a regular customer and often feels disappointed whenever he receives the message “Little Shuttle is fully booked. Please try another time slot.”
Another technology firm, Data Integrated Ltd, has launched a bus scheduling system targeting public service vehicles (PSVs) operators with the aim of making them efficiently plan and offer commuters better services.
Unlike Little Shuttle, which has deployed its own buses, Data Integrated hopes to get PSVs to sign up to Epesi Trip Planner that uses mobile apps and control centres to control, monitor and route vehicles.
Epesi aims to formalise public transport system by making it predictable, safe and organized. With Epesi, commuters will plan, monitor and book matatus online.
“Technology will help us to plan better for our city and reduce traffic jams,” says Mary Mwangi, data integrated chief executive.
City Shuttle Bus Company is among the operators that have already signed to Epesi, with the firm targeting to loop in more bus companies and matatu saccos.
In order to take control of bringing sanity in public transport, Little Shuttle has opted for direct ownership of buses in partnership with interested investors.
The firm has already launched eight 33-seater mini-buses on different routes in the capital. Unlike the PVSs, Little Shuttle operate on schedule during peak hours and commuters must book for a ride on the Little app.
According to Little chief executive Kamal Budhabhatti, the idea behind the shuttle services is to offer commuters a different experience of public transport anchored on strict timelines, comfort and dignity.
“People want comfort and don’t want to get to work tired and smelling,” he said.
Although Little Shuttle is premium service in which commuters pay a maximum of $2 (Ksh190), the high demand is testament of commuters eschewing the matatu culture—loud music, rude crew, dirty seats, unpredictable fares and disregard of traffic rules.
The shuttle operates during peak hours but Little keeps customers updated on its mobile app of delay due to traffic.
“We gather traffic data that helps us to estimate how long it will take from one point to another. If it gets delayed because of an ac cident or slow traffic we notify the rider,” stated Budhabhatti.
While customers like Otieno are happy with the service, the issue of timing is a constant problem because of the unpredictable nature of Kenyan roads.
“I usually don’t expect the shuttle to be exactly on time but the ability to monitor its movement on my phone is a good thing,” he noted.
The level of demand is forcing Little to lay the groundwork for expansion with the salient goal of disrupting the status quo in the PSV sector.
For this to happen, however, the firm is waiting for the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) to address the grey area in the regulatory framework under which the shuttle will operate.
“We are going slowly on expansion because there is lack of clarity on regulation,” explained Budhabhatti.
He added the service is not sure whether its falls under taxi service, PSV or matatu license, something that has seen NTSA put it in the category of transport service vehicles and it streamlines the regulatory regime.
As it awaits NTSA’s action, Little is already in negotiations with potential investors willing to put buses on the platform and is also seeking to raise $50 million to rollout an ambitious expansion strategy both across Kenya and in other countries specifically Tanzania and Ghana.
Currently the firm has operations in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.
The shuttle is only in Nairobi and the firm intends to venture into long routes to Kisumu, Mombasa and other parts of the country.
Although Little has developed a model of competing with taxis instead of matatus, the service has the potential to disrupt the PSV sector.
This is because matatus are now being forced to improve their services as customers look elsewhere for better services.
Culture of impunity
The launch of terms of service and codes of conduct by several matatu saccos is a pointer to the fact that the culture of impunity in an industry that is offering commuters better alternatives is unsustainable.
“Ultimately, the end game is to have a formalised public transport system that will benefit passengers which is predictable, safe and well organised,” noted Ms Mwangi.
While companies like Little are making the dream of order in public transport come true for a section of Kenyans who can afford to pay a premium, inabilities by the government to streamline the sector with long term solutions means that majority of Kenyans will continue to be at the mercies of the unruly matatu operators.