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How we mapped the world’s weirdest streets

The story of bringing Transit to Nairobi.

February 12, 2015

Nairobi streets

Our company has a simple mantra: public transit should be more accessible.

After spending the last few years reducing commute times in some of the world’s largest metropolii — Paris, New York, London — our riders have shown us how to best deliver on that promise.

With millions of commuters relying on our app to improve their trips, it’s our job to get access to the highest quality transit data available.

Up until now, we’ve had a pretty standard operating procedure whenever we launch a new city:

First, partner with a local transit agency. Second, acquire their open data. Third, compress the hell out of that data. Fourth, adapt the design of the app to that specific market. And finally, we release it—relaying all that info to users in the fastest, most intuitive way possible.

Local transit agencies are our best friends. By opening their data, agencies empower us to create a better rider experience in almost one hundred cities.

But what do you do in a city where there isn’t an agency to work with? What do you do when there’s no data to access?

How do you optimize a transit system when it doesn’t technically exist?

Enter Nairobi.

Nairobi, Kenya boasts a population of more than three million. To give you an idea of it’s size, it’s a bit bigger than Chicago, Toronto, and Madrid.

In Nairobi, private car ownership isn’t the norm: the bulk of Nairobi’s citizens rely on public transit. But when Nairobi’s formal bus system collapsed in the 1990s, the government failed to do anything about it.

So without a formal urban planning strategy, an enterprising group of Kenyans sought to fill the void.

The result was a crazy, lawless, and über-popular mode of transportation:

The Kenyan Matatu.

Matatus are small buses that carry anywhere between 14 and 25 passengers. The vehicles are leased by teams of two: a driver and a “tout”. The tout is responsible for collecting fares; the driver for getting passengers to their destination as quickly as possible.

And with more than 20,000 independent matatus in Nairobi, the pressure to maximize revenue is intense.

Hence the beautiful chaos of Nairobi’s roads: Matatu drivers will do anything to bypass traffic — weaving in and out of lanes, hopping up onto sidewalks, chasing ambulances… you know. The usual.

They also have a bad habit of disregarding road closures. That is, they did, until Nairobi construction crews developed extremely high-tech tactics to prevent matatus from ruining their freshly paved roads.

Without government oversight, it’s left to individual matatu operators to determine their own routes, fares, and marketing strategies.

There isn’t any official agency logo and colour scheme for matatus, and with so many of them competing for business, the free market incentivizes matatu operators to brand their vehicles with their own special touch.

It isn’t easy to get commuters’ attention in bustling traffic. It’s even harder to get them to board the vehicle. That’s why, in the cutthroat world of Nairobi transit, there is but one commercial imperative: pimp your ride, or die.

Matatu teams will ornament their buses with flamboyant paint jobs, televisions, and sound systems. Some matatus even have on-board WiFi.

But the only surefire way to attract a loyal ridership is to give your matatu a memorable slogan.

“Neon lights and graffiti drawings of American rappers colour the matatus, along with slogans ranging from ‘Jesus Saves All’ to ‘Baby Got Back’. Lost in this disorienting scene, I allow myself to be hauled by the bicep into a matatu emblazoned with the slogan ‘We Be Jammin’. My feet are barely inside before the matatu pulls away.”

Matatus have become a staple of Kenyan culture. And riding in style is one of the best ways a trendsetting young commuter can distinguish themselves from the achromatic hoi polloi. With charming names like “Big Poppa”, “Mada Gascar”, or “Bazooka”, no matatu ride is ever the same.

The matatu system is vibrant and bursting with life. But it’s also incredibly chaotic. Which makes navigating through it a pain in the ass.

Being headquartered in Montreal, we’re used to looking up a bus schedule and hopping on whatever ride comes in the right direction bearing the appropriate route number. If you live in the West, your experience is probably similar. But in Nairobi, things aren’t so straightforward. Commuters have to figure out everything for themselves.

Travelers rely on word-of-mouth to learn where to catch the bus, and which bus to catch. Routes are refined through a process of trial-and-error — an especially tricky task if any transfers are required en route. Worse yet, even when a reliable route is mapped out, commuters have no assurances about fares, especially if it rains. According to one Nairobi native, “Matatu fares are more emotional than the stock market,” making Uber surge pricing seem comparatively merciful.

Altogether, it shouldn’t come to you as a surprise that IBM has rated the commuter experience in Nairobi as one of the most painful in the world.

Luckily, reducing commuter pain is our modus operandi.

It also helps that we’re a bit crazy

The Digital Matatus Project

In 2014, a research collaboration between the University of Nairobi, Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Groupshot, and MIT’s Civic Design Lab yielded a project dubbed “Digital Matatus”. Their goal was to develop a better understanding of Nairobi’s informal transit system.

To get the data, a team of volunteers were armed with GPS-tracking cellphones, and told to ride the matatus as usual.

Using that raw data, researchers cobbled together an exhaustive list of matatus routes, arrival times, and stop locations. They then converted it into GTFS, which is the standard way for transit agencies to publish their scheduled data on the web.

The final step was to comb through the chaos of that data, and find out how Nairobi’s informal transit system was functioning in vivo.

When they saw the findings, they were shocked.

A volunteer collecting research for Digital Matatus (

Despite the lack of government coordination between matatus, the market doesn’t yield a slapdash tangle of contradictory bus lines.

Instead, it responds to demand with a surprisingly logical transit network.

There is a remarkable method to the madness: matatus follow 130 regular routes, congregate around the same stops, and do so at frequencies designed to maximize revenue.

The network isn’t perfect: downtown routes are often jammed, and less popular areas can be under-served. But for a system without any centralized planning, Nairobi’s performs rather well.

And when the researchers printed their findings out onto a map, they looked surprisingly similar to the sort of systems we’ve mapped ourselves in Berlin, Toronto, and San Francisco!

What’s more amazing is that the matatu system has evolved to deal with congestion. An (albeit imperfect) equilibrium has been met between routes travelling down highways, arterials, and local roads. All things told, Nairobi’s informal transit system has adapted extremely well to extremely difficult circumstances.

Extremely difficult circumstances, but ones that haven’t deterred us.

Using the data collected from the Digital Matatu project, Transit App will be the first public transportation app to integrate Nairobi’s transit system.

Before, the lack of public transit information forced commuters to plan their day around the particular matatus they happened to be familiar with.

But now commuters in the city will have the flexibility to find which ride will get them to their destination at their own personal convenience. They can access a list of nearby routes — where to board, how frequently they arrive, and where they’ll stop.And if riders need to go somewhere new? Our trip planner will tell them how to get there. This capability is important: one of the discoveries of the Digital Matatus project was that some Nairobians don’t take the most efficient routes — simply because they don’t know the options. Even Google Maps doesn’t support transit in Nairobi yet.

We’ve adjusted the app interface to match Nairobi’s needs, including frequency-based schedules and regional color coding. Like in other markets, schedules, stop locations, and route maps are all available offline — no 3G connection required.

And while we won’t be able to offer real-time transit information (like we do in most major cities), we are figuring out a way to make it happen. In which case, Nairobians will be able to see exactly when their next matatu is arriving.

Of course, that’s not all.

After wrangling with Nairobi, we’ve gained the confidence that it’s possible to integrate any informal transit system. Whether it’s the peseros of Mexico City, the jeepneys of Manila, or the dala dalas of Dar es Salaam—nothing is out of reach. We won’t be able to do it alone of course, but with the right partners, even a lack of government involvement won’t be able to stop us.

The Philippines’ infamous Jeepneys, repurposed from United States military jeeps from WW2. Can you believe these used to be olive green?

Even in highly decentralized transit systems, we know we can provide commuters with better access to information. Of course, it’s not as straightforward as partnering with an established agency. But urban planners and civic entrepreneurs are resilient, and even a complete lack of outside support won’t prevent them from coming up with ways to improve urban mobility.

So what are you waiting for?
Come join us in bringing Transit App to every city in the world.

Hakuna Matatu,
Transit app

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