Digital Applications and their Influence on Mobility in Kenya

“The service is super!” says Rachel Kamau, as she waits for her ride-hailed minivan. 

Over the past few years, ride-hailing services have become very popular in major urban areas of Kenya; as a result, a variety of transport services have been introduced. Most focus on passenger transportationwhile a few have ventured into cargo, logistics and local delivery services. 

Ridehailing services” refer to mobility solutions that are facilitated by digital applications (including mobile apps) provided by what are increasingly being referred to as Transport Network Companies (TNCs)In Kenya, ridehailing services have evolved from provision of private car transportation, to provision of motorbikes taxis, three-wheeler taxis, and mass transportation options. The latter has, however, been ordered off the road due to regulatory challenges since there are currently no statutory guidelines for ride hailed point-to-point public transport services.  

The digitalization of Kenya’s transport sector has been driven by good and affordable internet coverage, high levels of smartphone ownership (about 60%), and a booming technology and innovation ecosystem, boasting over 30 tech hubs and incubators spread throughout the country. 

The ride-hailing services made possible by Kenya’s expanded digital infrastructure now include e-hailing services for motor vehicles and motorcycles, carpooling services for small and high capacity vehicles, delivery services, cargo transportation services and trip planning services. They have had a significant impact on the travel characteristics of people in the country and have led the government of Kenya to respond with development of respective regulations, although they are still in draft form. 

Ride-hailing services impact other modes of transport 

In December 2019, GIZ surveyed 2,540 people in the Nairobi metropolitan area. 58% said that they had used ride-hailing services in the past. Of them, another 58% reported to have used ride-hailing for trips not related to work or school, mainly between Friday and Sunday. The average distance per ridehailing trip was 15.1 km for cars, 5.2 km for boda bodas (motorcycles taxi) and 13.2 km for buses. By comparison, the average city-wide trip distance for Nairobi is 10.2 Km for private cars and 9.1 Km for public transport. 

Of the respondents who had used ride-hailing service, 75% had used it because of its faster commuting times even though they cost more (see price comparison in table below). This suggests that city residents are willing to pay a premium for speed and convenience. Interestingly, most said that they would take matatus (privately owned minibuses that act as the country’s primary mode of public transport) whenever ride-hailing services were not available; personal vehicles came in a distant third after traditional taxis as alternatives to ride-hailing. This may partly be due to low car ownership in the country, as well as an indication of the fact ride-hailing is not only a substitute for privately owned vehicles but mostly public transport. 

 

Table: Price comparisons between modes of transport in Nairobi 

 Matatu Digital matatu Traditional taxi Digital taxi
Average rates (USD)
0.51.57 - 10 (negotiated)
6

NoteThe prices are estimates for a 13km trip from the Nairobi Central Business District to a residential area outside town. 

 

The GIZ surveyRide-hailing Study in Nairobi (2020), was supported by the TraCS project using questionnaires developed by the World Resource Institute and University of California (UC) Davies

Digital technologies must complement public transportation 

The study found that 48% of trips taken with digital taxis could have been taken with public transport. 34% of trips taken with digital taxis could have been taken with private vehicles and 13% with two and threewheeler taxis. For 2% of the cases, respondents indicated that they would have postponed or not taken a trip without digital taxis. This suggests a high shift from public transport to private vehicles, increasing total vehicle kilometres travelled (vkt)This is likely to produce more traffic and increase the emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, which is at odds with the government’s climate goals. Instead of more individual trips, Kenya needs more mass transit. 

75% of respondents said they use ride-hailing because it is faster. The reason for this, particularly in a town like Nairobi, is that matatus are readily available around the clockbut they do not follow fixed schedules and take long breaks at stops as they wait to fill up. This is an inconvenience for people who need to get from point A to point B quickly.  That is also why a few Transport Network Companies had ventured into ride-hailing services for mass transit in NairobiThey offered quicker and better scheduled pointtopoint options at a slightly higher price than matatus. Their success underscores the high demand for better transport services in Nairobi and demonstrates how these innovations can be harnessed to enhance public transportation in contexts like Kenya. 

It is all the more important, therefore, that the government proceeds with its plans for a mass rapid transit system in Nairobiwhile developing ride-hailing regulations. Such regulations should be focused not only on public safety or fleet size capping, but also on the evolving nature of global mobility innovations. The regulations should be designed in a way that ensures ridehailing applications complement mass transit services, and harness the power of digital technology to improve public transport in the city. 


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Published by:
Herman Kwoba, Nairobi