New maps give

New maps give matutu bus drivers new knowledge that will allow them to better harness the transport market in the city of Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Olli Pitkanen/Flickr.

On the heels of Google recently releasing its new version of Google Maps – complete with contextual information based on past Google searches, different transport options with real-time traffic notifications, and panoramic photo tours – it’s hard to remember what life was like before web-based mapping made navigating the city so easy. But for the public of Nairobi, Kenya two weeks ago was the very first time they were able to see before them a map of the informal transport network of buses that run throughout their city. These new maps not only offer Nairobi’s citizens the chance to shave a few minutes off of their commutes, but more importantly they allow everyone form city officials to matatu drivers to join in the conversation of sustainable mobility and work towards a more people-oriented transport network.

Informal bus routes through Nairobi, Kenya, show the power of a city to create its own transport network. Photo by digitalMatatus Project.

Informal bus routes through Nairobi, Kenya, show the power of a city to create its own transport network. Photo by digitalMatatus Project.

The openMatatus project

Before the openMatatus project, the matatu buses of Nairobi operated in a no-man’s land of organization, with each driver responsible only for his own small piece of the puzzle. The minibuses were not owned by a government agency and fares were unregulated, contributing to uneven fare prices, lax safety regulations, and overly centralized and congested routes.

Yet these buses are popular due to the flexibility they bring by not running on predetermined routes. Matatus were also an important part of the last-mile connectivity solution in Nairobi. Fare prices were set by a complex and possibly subconscious interplay between the matatu drivers’ desires to maximize their own profits and the necessity of each person to get to their destination. These drivers, seemingly accidentally, mastered the congestion pricing schemes cities like London, Milan, and Singapore use to reduce traffic on roadways at peak hours.

With this new map, there are likely to be deep shifts in the transportation networks of Nairobi. City officials can better coordinate routes to relieve congestion. Matatu drivers can see where there are “unclaimed” parts of the city, and they can expand their routes to fill these gaps. For everyday citizens, many will likely make sustainable transport a regular part of their lives as the quality of service increases. With a better idea of where things stand, the city as a whole has an opportunity to improve its entire transport network to better serve citizens.

This project was a collaborative effort between the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, students at the University of Nairobi, and the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT, which created the data for the map by carrying cell phones and GPS devices along every route in the network.

These maps show the power of Nairobi’s residents to create their own transport network despite government shortfalls. They will have far-reaching consequences, from encouraging more individuals to use sustainable transport, to potentially even shaping the framework for encouraging more in-depth transport planning for Nairobi. But perhaps the coolest part of the openMatatus project is not found in the bright lines on the page, but in the developer-friendly data set that MIT’s researchers produced for the map. These publicly available data sets allow local citizens to explore the relationship between such factors as crime, income, and access to transport in the areas in which they live. They will also allow developers to create mobile applications specific to the unique urban geography of Nairobi. While there is an endless list of possibilities, one thing is certain: bringing such tools and technology to cities like Nairobi is an important step towards helping the developing world realize the potential of sustainable transport to improve cities and improve lives.

This post was inspired by Emily Badger’s “This Is What Informal Transit Looks like When You Actually Map It.” The original maps were provided by the openMatatus project, and the original research was conducted by Wenfei Xu and Sarah Williams, Civic Data Design Lab, MIT.