Nairobi's drive to clean up the chaos of the street.

Author:Jacobs, Sherelle

Matatus are a cheap and colourful way to get around Kenya's capital, while driving one's own car is a mark of one's status. But amidst Nairobi's congestion, can commuters be convinced to take a different route?

The chaos of a Nairobi traffic jam has to be seen to be believed. Many Nairobians set their alarms for 5am or even earlier to make sure they can be at their desks by 8am, but logic-defying jams can be found at almost any time of day. Covering the 10 miles from downtown to Kenyatta airport can take anything between 20 minutes and two hours.

Nairobi is a city in a hurry. The Kenyan economy is growing at over 5%, much of it driven by its capital city, whose population has swelled to around 3.5m. This population growth and wealth has inevitably brought with it more traffic and more congestion.

The city's public transport is dominated by matatus --essentially, beaten-up minivans that transport up to 14 passengers per vehicle. Since the 1990s, when the Kenyan government allowed the city's formal bus network to collapse and be replaced by matatus, most of Nairobi's population has relied on this network of privately run minivans.

Typically adorned with the colours of Manchester United, Chelsea or another European football club, and pumping out reggae, rap or gospel music, matatus are, at first glance, a far more cheerful way to commute than the silent anonymity of the London or Paris underground.

Matatu drivers are invariably innovative, skilled, and dangerous. Mounting the pavement, overtaking in static traffic--sometimes by driving towards oncoming traffic--are just some of the tricks of the trade. Matatus are also relatively cheap, a single trip costing between 20 and 60 Kenyan shillings (20-60 US cents).

However, matatus are a far from perfect system. Along with motorbike taxis and the 10,000 new cars registered in Nairobi each month, these minivans often get caught in the gridlock of the bustling city.

The system is also inefficient in other ways. Outside peak times, for example, it can be hard to find a matatu. And rather than adhering to a daily timetable, the vehicles typically do not leave their stations until they are full.

In fact, the state of the transport system is a source of consternation amongst many of Nairobi's inhabitants, who see it as ineffective, anarchic and outdated.

According to Dorian Kivumbi, head of transport and infrastructure for the European Union in Kenya, this situation ought to be a source of urgent concern...

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