Mapping Nairobi’s Informal Public Transport System

  • Matatu’s are privately owned mini-buses that are a common form of public transport in East African countries like Kenya and Uganda. Painted in bright colors and often decorated with slogans or portraits of famous people, you can find thousands of them on the roads of Nairobi. With Matatu’s being used by over 70% of the inhabitants, they are the main public transport system in the Kenyan capital.

    However, while it makes for such a large part of Nairobi’s public transport, the Matatu system is pretty chaotic. Schedules and fares of the buses vary heavily and bus routes and and stops are not clear. Choosing the wrong line can cost the traveler half a day and the the already crowded roads can be entirely shut down for hours after accidents.

    Matatus Matatus

    In order to get more overview of the system, the Digital Matatus collaborative, consisting of researchers from MIT, Columbia University, and the University of Nairobi and designers of Groupshot, started mapping the ad-hoc bus system. Using a purpose-built smartphone app, ten university students spent four months riding all the buses and noting the names and locations of all the stops. By the end, they recorded almost 3,000 stops on more than 130 routes.

    Matatu Map

    Based on the gathered data, a first comprehensive Matatu map was released in 2014. Recently the Digital Matatus group joined forces with Google to bring the Matatu system to Google Maps. Just like checking subway times in New York, residents of Nairobi can now simply see the Matatu system on the map and plan a trip, use a Matatu smartphone app, or use the printed version of the map. The benefits of the new system are more efficient travel and even the possibility of using safer routes during the nights.