The unlikely masters of nudge theory our transit systems must watch

Much human decision-making happens automatically. We are highly susceptible to external cues influencing us to make one decision over another. The process behind these cues is key to customer experience and improved marketing strategies. One surprising transit industry has mastered nudge theory to this end.

When asked to think of the best public transport system in the world, where does you mind take you? Tokyo? New York? London maybe?

I’ll bet it’s not Nairobi, anyway.

And there’s good reason for that. It has the second worst traffic in the world, with the average Nairobian spending 62.44 minutes in traffic. An outdated infrastructure, exorbitant congestion and reckless driving make it almost impossible to navigate Nairobi streets at times. Twice a day the city grounds to a halt when its 4.5 million residents attempt to make the gruelling slog across town to work – a feat that costs Nairobi over $500,000 in lost productivity, every single day.

The Kenyan government certainly don’t have their own ”Nudge Unit” applying Nudge theory to their transit challenges.

Nairobi Traffic transit system

But there is one thing that Nairobi’s system does better than any “sophisticated” transit system ever could do. And we would do well to take note.

What on earth could this lumbering, congested system teach the super-efficient, intelligent transport systems of East Asia and the West?

The answer: how human behaviour works.


Matatu, Nairobi transit. Master of nudge theoryThe unlikely sages in this system are matatus, the privately-owned mini-van taxis that have become the lifeblood of Kenya’s capital. The 20,000 buses in operation ferry an estimated 70% of Nairobi’s passengers to every corner of the city and beyond every day.

Matatus are generally noisy, overcrowded and have a reputation for reckless driving. Yet, they successfully manage to keep passengers coming back time and again; and they have the power to bring the city to a standstill with their notorious “matatu strikes”. They have captured a huge proportion of the transport market and are not going to disappear any time soon.

I know this doesn’t sound like it lends itself to particularly good customer experience (and, on the whole, it doesn’t). But, let’s take a closer look. This business model is founded on some incredibly effective practices that can definitely teach our “sophisticated” transit systems a thing or two.

Why? Because they are the masters of the nudge.


Nudge theory is a concept in Behavioural Economics brought to prominence by Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler. A nudge is essentially a tiny prompt that encourages you to act in a specific way. Not all our decisions are well-thought out and rational. When we have to make a quick decision, our brains go into a sort of auto-pilot mode. This makes them highly susceptible to environmental influences. Nudges take advantage of this cognitive phenomena by prompting us to react in a way favouring one outcome over another.

Matatu drivers and their conductors are masters of getting passengers to enter their vehicles. They employ a number of brilliantly simple tricks that nudge passengers to get into overcrowded buses, pay a slightly higher fare, or wait in long queues for a ride home.

So how do they do it?

What follows are three different nudge theories that matatu drivers effectively employ and the lessons that “sophisticated” transport systems could learn from them.


Choice architecture means actively influencing how options are presented to the customer to guide them towards a specific outcome.

To the uninitiated, Nairobi’s matatu stations are a disorganised ramshackle of buses, noise and chaos that lack any hint of order. There are no signs, no formal schedules and no indicator as to which bus goes where. Yet, look a little close and you’ll see a frictionless system in which thousands of passengers are being herded through the crowds onto their desired bus.

Matatu station nudge transit

This system relies on conductors who compete to get passengers to enter their bus. The buses only depart once they are full. So conductors navigate the crowds, finding passengers and (quite literally) nudging them towards their bus. In all the noise, crowds and uncertainty, passengers do not have time to calmly think through their decision and choose the right bus – i.e. the one that is going to depart next. By holding the passenger’s hand through the crowd and leading them towards one specific bus, the conductor takes away the overwhelming amount of options.

In addition to this, the drivers shape the passenger’s choice even further by using “dummies” – fake passengers who sit in the bus to make it appear like it is full. Because the matatus only leave once they are full, passengers are reluctant to get in an empty bus. In the melee, passengers are making split-second judgement calls on which buses are best to choose. By portraying the bus as fuller than it is, the drivers present their bus in a better light and trigger the passengers to make a decision in their favour.

These two tactics present a particular bus in a more positive light and makes the passenger more likely to choose it over a competitor. Of course, the passenger could say no and look for another bus themselves. But because this option has already been presented to them, and an alternative is not easily found in all the chaos, they are less likely to decline it.

Choice architecture of this form could also be adopted by more sophisticated transit systems. In a train station, guiding people towards the right platform or the emptiest carriage would make their journey much easier and decrease congestion in the station. At peak times clear signs directing people to the most popular lines or empty carriages would make the station more fluid. Guiding people in the right direction without them having to stop and think, would free up up the walkways.


Loss aversion is the idea that “losses loom larger than gains”. So, in certain circumstances, customers react more strongly to the risk of a potential loss than a potential gain.

The use of dummies in the matatu appeals to this notion of loss aversion. Once you get into a matatu and see the dummy get out, you naturally feel deceived. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see passengers vent their frustration at this manipulation. Yet, you rarely see customers leave a matatu and enter another – something they’re perfectly entitled to do. This is because they don’t want to lose their seat in the queue. If they go in search of a new matatu, they have no idea if it will be any nearer to the goal of a full bus and will leave as early as this current one. By staying, they are certain that they will not lose out on the time gains they made by entering this seemingly full bus. The risk of leaving outweighs the risk of staying.

overcrowding matatu nudge theory

Another common matatu trait is over-crowding. While the mini-vans are designed for 8-12 people, you often see upwards of 15 people crammed in alongside animals and other goods. Again, the passengers are within their rights to stop the driver from letting more people in than the legal limit. And you often hear people reprimand the drivers for the over-crowding. Yet, you rarely see people vote with their feet (and wallets) by leaving a crowded bus and taking another. This is because of the fear of losing out. The risk of leaving the bus is that they have to navigate the crowds once more and go through the whole process of finding the right bus and waiting for it to fill up once more – which could take hours for all they know.

Loss aversion could be integrated into train ticket sales of advanced public transit systems to encourage people to book more train tickets in advance. Think about the last time you took a long train journey, and somebody got on half way through and took the empty seat next to you. You feel like you’ve lost out here because the extra space was taken away from you. Now compare it to a time you got on a busy train and managed to find the last available seat. This feels like a win, and the thought of the potential extra space never entered your mind. This extra space could be promoted on ticket sales. For example, it could be an option to pay extra to ensure your extra space was not taken until the train started filling up.

There is an extra dimension to this use of loss aversion: it will help the environment. Booking in advance will make it more likely that you choose the train over the car for a specific journey. Once you’ve got your ticket you don’t want to lose out by wasting it and taking the car. If you never had the ticket in the first place and you were deciding between car and train on the day, you wouldn’t feel like you’d lost; meaning your chances of choosing the train would go down, and your impact on the environment would go up.


Information mechanisms are strategically placed nuggets of information that guide people towards making a decision in a certain way. By offering a small piece of information about a subject, they nudge the individual to take an action that they may not have taken otherwise.

This type of nudge has been successfully implemented in matatu’s across Kenya to reduce the number of fatal road accidents. Kenya has notoriously dangerous roads and matatus are involved in a large number of fatal traffic accidents, in part because of reckless driving. To counter this, a charity called Zusha! (“Speak up!” in Swahili) has placed small informational stickers on the inside of 12,000 matatus across Kenya.

Nudge theory stickers matatu transit

These stickers encourage the passengers to speak up and challenge a driver when he is driving recklessly. And they work: they have resulted in 140 fewer road accidents per year and, astonishingly, the annual death toll has dropped by 55. The simple messages remind passengers that they have the right to tell the driver to slow down. This mechanism nudges them to perform in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, resulting in significant road safety improvements.

Similar mechanisms could be replicated in transit systems around the world. Stickers informing passengers of their rights or duties placed on train and bus windows would encourage them to take action. This could be used to encourage people to intervene in cases of harassment, pick up their litter, or simply strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller.


You may think this all sounds fairly manipulative, dangerous and bordering on unethical. And, some of the examples given certainly are. But what’s interesting about matatus is the power of the nudge – why it works, not how matatu drivers implement it. Matatu drivers are incredibly adept at understanding the automatic decision-making processes that go on in the human brain. And they have collectively developed ingenious ways of tapping into these processes to gain customers. What “sophisticated” transit systems can learn from matatus is how to understand human behaviour. The principles can be adapted to design transport systems around people by tapping into how we work and using this knowledge to make our travel experiences better.

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