Culture Meets the Commute: Reclaiming Mobility with the Matatu
BY: Jenny Wang
You can visualize a lot, from a city’s sounds.
Can you feel yourself waiting to get off the Red Line?
Or picture the 1 bus, traveling on Mass Ave, stopping right in front of you?
Or if it’s been so long since you’ve been in Cambridge, can you imagine yourself in this traffic jam?
It’s remarkable how easily these sounds can evoke memories. What’s even more remarkable is how universal these noises are. That Red Line you were picturing? Came from a recording of the London Underground. That 1 bus? Madrid, Spain. And the traffic jam? Right in the heart of Cairo, Egypt.
When I started brainstorming ideas for this project, I was initially drawn to the idea of studying public transit in the Global South. When I was younger, I used to memorize subway maps in New York City, and even now I make efforts to ride the subway or bus in every new city I travel to. I’ve also made it a habit to collect subway cards as souvenirs, so currently my collection spans from cities in America like Boston and D.C. to in foreign nations like London, Beijing, and Copenhagen.
Public transit as we know it is not necessarily common among nations in the Global South. In many of these countries, commuters must struggle with governmental structures that are not stable enough to provide complex transportation systems. I’ll explore here what innovations in public transportation look like in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sensing both a need for effective transportation, as well as an opportunity to make good money, entrepreneurs in Nairobi began purchasing passenger vans and minibuses, and transforming them into shuttle-sized microtransit services called “matatus”.
These microbuses have popped up in various forms in cities across the Global South, such as the peseros in Mexico City, songthaews in Thailand, and kombis in Zimbabwe. In Nairobi in particular, these matatus have become fundamental to the city’s culture.
“But in Kenya it’s like America, America their culture is this, street graffiti on walls. In Kenya, it’s street graffiti on motor vehicles.”
Not only have matatus carried 60% of Nairobi’s population since the 1960s, they have become effective tools for Nairobians to demonstrate their creativity.
“These days, no one can put a matatu on the road without putting a design.”
Matatus were once primarily associated with gangs and violence. However, young people have been making significant efforts to rebrand matatu culture into highly-sought after entertainment experiences. Now, matatus are graffitied with celebrities like Meghan the Stallion and Kanye West, or decorated like Batman or The Flash. They’ve evolved from being just a way to get from point A to point B. Matatus are now a lifestyle.
“A lot of people who use these matatus are the youth and the youth have particular things that they look at. They have to know the sound system is good. They have to know the vehicle has stuff like wifi, they have to know you have a good driver, he’s not going to get them stuck in traffic.”
Competition among matatu businesses have forced owners to step up their game. They’re now essentially required to provide not only transportation, but also a quality experience that other matatus cannot match.
“We have people who love music, people who love movies, people who love sports. Fans of Kanye music. We have another one for footballers… All Blacks for rugby… Most of our vehicles, all of them have internet inside….You just start googling for free.”
Deciding which matatu to ride is like deciding what to do on a Friday night: go to the club, go to the movie theater, or go to a sports bar. People are willing to pay a wide range of fares––typically between 10 and 70 Kenyan shillings––to get the most exciting ride.
“They want the most out of their money, so they get music they get everything. It’s like a luxury.”
Matatu owners have spent up to 7,000,000 Kenya Shillings––or $65,000––remodeling cars to attract customers. With the ever-increasing need to spend more to attract riders, the matatu industry has created thousands of jobs, especially for young people.
“I do the matatu bodies. These matatu bodies have made me employ youth in the business and they’ve been able to get jobs and we keep doing new bodies all the time. And therefore, we keep them employed.”
A 2017 survey by the Kenya National Bureau for Statistics found that 7 million Kenyans are jobless––70% of which are young adults. The matatu industry has created a gateway into the labor force, allowing the youth population to gain work experience while earning enough income to support themselves. Due to the rise of culture and luxury-driven matatu transport, Nairobi has helped generate new markets for photographers, designers and graffiti artists, as well as upholstery craftspeople, lighting technicians, music agents, etc.
“Even in my garage you can see the workers, they are all young, I think I’m the oldest here. because I try and bring guys from the street, they sit here, I teach them work, then they start to work.”
I was inspired by the matatu’s ability to not only produce an innovative solution to the issue of transportation, but also to create a thriving business model that fuels Nairobi’s economy.
Public mass transit has been a part of American life for almost two centuries. People today are accustomed to knowing exactly where a bus will stop or when it will arrive. It’s easy to feel like we’ve mastered the art of travel.
But what’s next? Instead of wondering how might Western transit planning help the Global South develop or how might our ridesharing market take over in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, I encourage you to consider, how might we take a page out of Nairobi’s book and introduce culture into the commute?
Around this time, I happened to be doing some research into the rideshare industry. This summer I’ll be interning at Lyft, and I was curious to learn more about the company’s mission, values, and vision. I remember reading the vision statement that “We imagine a world where cities feel small again. Where transportation and tech bring people together, instead of apart. We see the future as community-driven and it starts with you.” At the time, I sort of glossed over it, unable to even imagine, based on my previous Lyft and Uber rides, how a car driving me from point A to point B could create a community.
However, my research about Nairobi showed that transportation CAN bring communities together, and even create a beautiful culture around movement.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the fact that Lyft’s origin story started with the kombis of Zimbabwe that a lightbulb went off in my brain. Logan Green, the company co-founder, had been inspired by a trip to Harare where he saw locals essentially “carpooling” in a kombi. This caused him to build Zimride, which helped connect riders with drivers for long-distance trips in 2007, and then later transition into Lyft.
I was struck by the coincidence, and also started thinking more about how this was an example of an exchange of ideas between the Global North and South. From an idea inspired by transportation in Zimbabwe, transportation in America has undergone incredible changes in the last decade. Now, Western technology is helping cities like Nairobi and Mexico City capture transit data and transform their word-of-mouth structured transit networks into mapped routes through programs like Digital Matatus and MapatonCD.
But what’s next? Instead of wondering “how will mapped transit routes help the Global South develop” or “how might rideshare take over in Africa, Latin America, and Asia”, I’m wondering, how might we take a page out of Nairobi’s book and introduce culture into the commute.
- Sound effects obtained from zapsplat.com