Mapping Nairobi’s Crazy Informal Transit System For The First Time

The city’s chaotic web of “matatu” vans used to be nearly impossible to master. But a new map of the city’s 130 transit routes is making public transit simpler and safer.

If you need to go somewhere in Nairobi, there’s a good chance you’ll get in a “matatu.” Since the city doesn’t have an official bus system, these privately owned vans–often beaten up and decorated with street art and neon lights–are pretty much the only public transportation option. But until recently, the chaotic web of matatu routes has also been near impossible to decipher, since the system had no official map.


Now that’s finally changing. A group of researchers, designers, and students has mapped out the city’s 130 transit routes and created an open dataset that can be updated continuously.

“We wanted to render visible the public transit system,” says Jacqueline Klopp, an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “We wanted to empower citizens and support the tech community that’s trying to develop tools for users of public transportation. And we wanted also to have a public discussion about planning and have this as a planning tool.”

Before the map, not only was it hard for riders to figure out how to get from one place to another, but even the government didn’t really know exactly what was going on.

“There’s hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, going into transport in Africa,” Klopp says. “How do you monitor any of it, and the impact that public transit has, if there’s no open data? Here’s an example of how crazy and invisible this important system is: Nairobi recently built a new eight-lane mega-highway without any planning for public transit.”

The researchers, from the University of Nairobi, the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT, and Groupshot, a small design studio in Boston, tracked all of the routes with smartphones and GPS units, and made that data publicly available. Already, planners have started using the maps to help design a new bus rapid transit system for the city. And two developers have built new apps: One lets riders finally plan trips, and one also rates drivers and crowdsources traffic conditions.

The maps have been especially helpful for women, who are often afraid they’ll accidentally get on the wrong bus at night and end up in a dangerous location.


The next step will be printing a physical map for those who don’t have access to smartphones. The group also hopes to help other cities start mapping informal transit.

“I think we’d really like to scale up these efforts and encourage people in different cities, not just in Africa but Asia as well,” Klopp says. “We see Nairobi as a pilot.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.