Nairobi’s minibus driver strike and transit complementarity

I seem to be doing a series of “Things I Say To My Students that They Don’t Believe” series, unintentionally.

But today’s thing is “buses and trains are service complements, not competitors or substitutes.”

My students tend to think of modes in terms of competition, and that’s not really the case at the system level, particularly for transit, and it’s very seldom true at the trip level for those of us who use the system. Buses are useful for distribution, just like walking is. Trains are useful for line-haul portions of the trips. Cars can do both distribution and line-haul, so can walking, so can bikes–it’s a matter of scale. For cars, distribution occurs on minor streets, line-haul on major streets and freeways, etc.

Buses and trains can perform some of the same line-haul functions and be made to behave a lot like the other: limited-stop buses on dedicated ROW with priority signalization can work operationally a lot like trains, speeding up the line haul. Street cars or LRT that operate on surface streets with lots of stops and subject to traffic lights can be just as slow as a bus. The dustups here between advocates of different modes are generally about funding, not about operations.

So what does the mini-bus drivers strike in Kenya illustrate? Well, it’s the complementarity of functional specialization of transit modes in highly congestion settings: mini-bus drivers are apparently carrying an enormous amount of passenger traffic which would–and is in their absence–crushing the train system. Those are *big trains*, folks. I haven’t seen their operating frequency, but that is a big train to be a stuffed as it is. At least the men on top of the train seem to be having a good time.*

*My prissy risk-averse American self is having kittens about the dangers of having people hang off trains, but…what else can you do if you have to get to work?


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