Mapping Matatus


Just as New York commuters can plot their subway routes, residents of Nairobi can now jack into the city’s informal bus system on their smartphones. (Wired)

Use our GeoStory to navigate other transit systems around the world.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including pocket-sized and wall-sized versions of the new Nairobi transit map.

This beautiful transit map of Nairobi, Kenya, was created with smartphones, intrepid college students, and the brain trusts at MIT, Columbia University, the University of Nairobi and the design firm Groupshot. Map by Digital Matatus
This beautiful transit map of Nairobi, Kenya, was created with smartphones, intrepid college students, and the brain trusts at MIT, Columbia University, the University of Nairobi, and the design firm Groupshot.
Map by Digital Matatus

Discussion Ideas

  • The terrific new mapping project is called Digital Matatus. What is a matatu?
    • Matatus are privately owned minibuses, pickup trucks, or other shared taxis. Matatus are far less rigorously regulated than taxis in the United States, but they must have some safety features (such as seat belts) and must belong to a SACCO (Savings And Credit Co-Operative).


  • Take a scroll through our GeoStory on public transportation systems around the world. The second photo on each page is a map of the system. Why hasn’t Nairobi’s system had a map before now?
    • It’s not really a public transportation system, which is largely paid for through taxes and set-use fees, and available to all members of the community. Each matatu is privately owned and operated. There is not a central authority responsible for routes, stops, maps, or maintenance of matatus.


  • Why was the matatu system, which serves a whopping 70% of Nairobi’s population of 3.5 million people, considered inefficient or even dangerous?
    • According to Wired, “Individual matatu buses and routes are privately owned and operated, which means schedules and ticket prices can change at the whim of whoever’s in charge. Even finding the right stop can be tricky. You just kind of have to . . . know.”
      • Not knowing the routes means customers may not choose the most time-saving or easiest stop or route.
    • Public infrastructure, such as highways, may not account for major matatu traffic and not construct enough traffic lanes or stop signs.
    • Matatu operators may not be aware of areas of Nairobi that are underserved—they’re missing out on business and residents are forced into long commutes.
    • Female commuters have said “at night, I want to make sure I’m on the right matatu. I don’t want to get on the wrong one where I don’t feel safe.”
    • Residents may have trouble accessing vital public services, such as health care, education, legal consultation, and business activities. Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “So many of our problems in developing cities where you have extreme poverty and awful environmental conditions—they’re always tied in some way to the transport sector. It’s very chaotic and unmanaged.”


  • How were Digital Matatu routes created?
    • First, “ten University of Nairobi students spent four months riding the matatus, noting the name and location of each stop in a purpose-built app, which also used GPS to track the route. In dangerous neighborhoods, they followed behind the brightly painted buses in private cars. By the end, the students recorded almost 3,000 stops on more than 130 routes.”
      • Some information existed before, but only recorded the start and end points of matatu trips, “making it impossible to know how the matatus navigated the city.”
      • Students identified routes based on personal knowledge, information from frequent users,visual notations such as signs, and interaction with matatu operators and commuters.
    • Second, “all that data needed to be put in a usable format—specifically, a global standard called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which is compatible with open-source software used to make routing apps like Google Maps.”
    • Third, “Google Maps agreed to update the global standard to make room for flexible transit networks with constantly changing schedules, routes, and stops.”
    • Finally, “the Digital Matatus team turned to the project of visualizing the entire matatu system in one map. When they plotted the GPS coordinates in their software, they generated a neuron-like mass of overlapping routes and colors. Separating and structuring that mass into a formal subway-style map, designers at the MIT Civic Data Design Lab gave each of the main corridors going through the city center a different color, with well-known landmarks such as the Karura ForestNgong Road Forest, and Nairobi National Park anchoring the map in the city.”


  • How are Nairobians accessing the Digital Matatus map?
    • Well, they can access it on their smartphones, they can download it from the web, and, since city officials made it their first official transportation map, they can access it through official channels. In fact, the Digital Matatus map is currently being used by UN Habitat to help guide the Bus Rapid Transit system they are developing for Nairobi.


  • What other areas do you think might benefit from the technology and process used in Digital Matatus?
    • Large, densely populated urban areas in the developing world, where transportation infrastructure has not kept up with growth and development, are ideally suited for the Digital Matatus approach.
      • Wired mentions Kampala, Uganda; Accra, Ghana; Lusaka, Zambia; Maputo, Mozambique; Mexico City, Mexico; Manila, Philippines; and Dhaka, Bangladesh.



Wired: How Nairobi Got Its Ad-Hoc Bus System on Google Maps

Nat Geo: Public Transportation GeoStory

Digital Matatus

Digital Matatus: Maps

The Guardian: Cities in motion: how we mapped the matatus of Nairobi

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