Mapping the beautiful chaos of informal transit
August 27, 2015 11:01 AM   Subscribe

As transit systems go, the matatus in Nairobi exist somewhere between underground gypsy cabs and MTA bus service. The minibuses themselves aren't owned by any government agency. The fares aren't regulated by the city. The routes are vaguely based on a bus network that existed in Nairobi some 30 years ago, but they've since shifted and multiplied and expanded at the region's edges... Riders who navigate the matatu system rely on it in parts, using only the lines they know and the unofficial stops they're sure actually exist. As for the network as a whole – there's never even been a map of it... In the absence of a formal public transit system in Kenya's capital, people have created a comprehensive – if imperfect – one on their own. And now we know that it looks like this.
This sounds like controlled chaos, although it more or less describes how transit works in much of the world outside of North America and Europe. But amid the 130 or so unregulated matatu lines in metro Nairobi, there's an admirable logic.

- How Nairobi got its ad-hoc bus system on Google Maps (example)

- How we mapped the world's weirdest streets.
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.
- Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a major African city knows how key the informal transit network is. Whether it’s kombis in Durban, molues or danfos in Lagos, informal modes of transportation are easily the cheapest and most effective ways of getting around the city of your choice. The problem with these networks is that it requires a lot of insider knowledge.

- MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning: Digital Matatus
posted by ChuraChura (21 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Digital Matatus is awesome, and so is this post.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 11:17 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder which route the Van Damme Bus is on, Capheus can definitely get involved with this project.
posted by numaner at 11:22 AM on August 27, 2015 [9 favorites]

This is an amazing achievement.

I haven't been to Nairobi, but the bus system sounds very similar to what we've got in Cartagena. I've been thinking about how to map Cartagena's system since I got here, and it is a daunting prospect. So I've been reading these articles with intense interest.
posted by zjacreman at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2015

Great post. A friend from my Nairobi days was working on an earlier version of this mapping system back in 2007. Cool to see how far it's come.

The word matatu comes from a "Swahili colloquialism...literally a conjugation of the word "three", and derives from their original price, three shillings "mashilingi matatu"."

In DRC they're called fula fulas (quick quick), in Ghana they're called tro tros, in Zimbabwe they're called combis. I ran into them in pretty much every country I lived or worked in across Africa and south / central Asia.

They were also incredibly dangerous, in most places. In Kenya, the newspapers daily run large advertisements for "commuter's insurance" - which is a common thing because of how often the same newspapers report on yet another matatu that crashed, killing some or in many cases all of its occupants. This happened not infrequently, for many reasons.

The first is that these aren't minivans in the traditional sense. They were originally manufactured as such, but before (or shortly after) reaching Kenya, they have the originally designed rear seats stripped out, with the seatbelts and anything else resembling a modern convenience (armrests, cupholders, etc.). Then, they weld in minimalist space-saving benches with thin back supports on them. This is so that they can pack in as many people as possible. As the FPP mentions - between 14 and 25 passengers - in a van originally designed for maybe 8, safely. On a packed matatu it isn't uncommon to have the tout hanging out the open side door when there's no room left for him on the inside. So, as you might suspect, crushing is the literal cause of death in many of these accidents - you are killed by the person sitting next to you.

The second is how they are driven. The matatus aren't owned by their drivers, instead they are owned primarily by either A) the Mungiki (Nairobi's massive criminal gang), B) the police, or C) some shadowy but commonly accepted combination of A and B. Probably C most of the time. The point is, they are rented out on a daily basis to the driver and tout team, who pay something approaching an exorbitant rate for the use of the vehicle for the day. From the time they pay for the use of the vehicle, they are literally on a race against time to make enough in that day to recoup their investment, and so they drive like it - breaking any and every law and endangering anyone in their vehicle or their path.

It wasn't uncommon to see a person under a matatu. I once was driving home, towards town on Ngong road (leads out to one of the wealthier suburbs where my org had an office), when I saw a guy, with his bike, flattened underneath a stopped matatu that had run him over. The crowd was beginning to form around the matatu as it's passengers emptied and its driver stayed inside. My roommate happened to be on the same road around that time, headed in the other direction, but stuck in the traffic behind the accident. By the time she got to the scene, all that was left was the burning husk of the matatu with the driver's body still inside. Street justice.

Related to how they are driven - the criminals (often in uniform) who rent them out have a very profitable side business selling speed to the drivers to keep them hopped up on the job.

The third is that both the matatus and the areas around where they are known to stop are a hot-bed for pickpockets and muggings. Around the stops was popular because the vehicles don't like to come to a full stop if they can avoid it when letting passengers off, so it's a hairy moment of jumping off of a moving vehicle that presents a great opportunity for the thief either staying on the vehicle, or escaping from it quickly.

I was categorically forbid from taking them as a form of transport, but many of my friends weren't and used them frequently. And categorically, every one of them was robbed or held up at one point or another. Most were lucky to get away unharmed, many weren't.

Over our years there, both myself and the Mrs. had at least one tangle with a Matatu, and despite them always being clearly at fault, we were on the losing end. In the Mrs.' case, one cut her off and then stopped immediately in front of her to let passengers off, causing her to rear end it. Fortunately we had a friend nearby there who showed up and paid them off with a few thousand shillings before the crowd got out of hand - but it was incredibly dangerous for her even being in her own car. If we had waited for the cops we would have had to pay them just as much or more.

Blocking Matatus trying to ride up the side of the road was like a daily hobby for me. They HATED me.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2015 [51 favorites]

An interesting discussion on this system from transit planner Jarrett Walker. He notes the system is in some ways very inefficient; almost all the matatus go downtown, even though there must be some demand for crosstown service (which just may be less profitable). The other inefficiency is that on the busier corridors - some have 10 or more routes down the same road for much of their length - larger vehicles could be used to provide more capacity with fewer drivers and less congestion.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

super cool!

when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer we just had to ask around to understand the minibus routes and fares in my country, which was a good & interesting exercise that would lead to you having a mental map of this sort in your head... but this actual map would have saved me a ton of time in writing out transport explanations for visitors. Would love to see it done on a national scale.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great post!
posted by benito.strauss at 11:58 AM on August 27, 2015

in Zimbabwe they're called combis

This is how I always heard them called throughout southern Africa - that, or more often just a "taxi." For the record probably named after the VW Kombi! :)

Re: Crime. At least in South Africa, the areas a few blocks *outside* the taxi ranks were hotbeds of crime, but inside the taxi rank or on a taxi itself was one of the safest places to be, because the taxi marshals who ran the ranks would not tolerate any nonsense. And pick-pocketing in there would probably earn you some very negative attention from the taxi cartels.

I love the system and frequently wish the US had something similar. For all their safety problems, it's awesome to live in a place where cheap public transport can get you literally anywhere you want to go, no matter how remote.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:07 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yep - I rode gbakas in Abidjan when I was with my friends and never had trouble, other than the fact that any road with more than one gbaka on it (as with matatus) automatically gains at least one extra lane. 2 lane roads become 3, 3 become 4, and highways might as well not have lane markers at all!
posted by ChuraChura at 12:16 PM on August 27, 2015

A common sight on the highways in Burkina Faso: An overloaded minibus with BONNE CHANCE written on the back and sides. This one is pretty typical, although the phrase is covered in baskets.

I'm not sure if the well-wishes are for the passengers or for anyone trying to pass them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Digital Mutatus site provides a simple GIS data download. Yay! I'm not too familiar with GeoDatabase format, but ogrinfo found two layers, one for routes and one for stops. Here's a quick and dirty zoomable map of the routes geometry.
posted by Nelson at 12:35 PM on August 27, 2015

Ha! In my office building, there's a guy who's got a Kenya sticker and something like "My other car is a Matatu" or "I'd rather be driving..." or something like that. I was wondering but never looked it up.

Nice post :)
posted by symbioid at 12:55 PM on August 27, 2015

I really love the stuff that comes out of the MIT Urban Planning Department. Good job, course 11! Six hertz and six bytes, MIT is easy if you study biology, and course 11 is SO a real major. (15 still isn't.)
posted by maryr at 1:02 PM on August 27, 2015

Mixed reactions on the ground.

Ma3Route been doing this for a couple of years a least.

posted by infini at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love the system and frequently wish the US had something similar.

Dollar vans are kind of similar. I've used them to get from an New Jersey motel to Manhattan. When you asked about them at reception they tell you to stand outside on the main road and wait for a van that "looks like this" (* holds up picture *). Was a strange experience as a tourist.
posted by grahamparks at 1:59 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. The matatus look like higher-end versions of the jeepneys that Filipinos rely on to get around.

I also loved the sound of the "Creole" Swahili one of the young women was using.
posted by Nevin at 2:48 PM on August 27, 2015

between 14 and 25 passengers - in a van originally designed for maybe 8

I have seen them with another layer of people on the roof (on top of the luggage, of course) on rural routes, putting the total passengers well over 30 in a seven passenger van. They lean scarily far in the turns and crash often, of course. I have also seen what happens when someone falls off the roof at speed, which cured my interest in riding on the roof.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 PM on August 27, 2015

This isn't quaint or beautiful. This is the sort of mess you get when government run public transportation systems fail or get deliberately dismantled.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:49 PM on August 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Well, no. I agree that it is not quaint (it is a pretty sophisticated system). And I suppose you could argue about the beauty of transit maps. Regardless, building usable maps of informal transit systems is a good thing to do. This is the way people get around in a significant portion of the world. Government doesn't always have the ability to put together complex infrastructure; people need to be able to navigate their large and complex cities or coordinate travel between cities regardless of government function. I think the complexity, relative efficiency, and ubiquity of these transportation systems says that they are a robust and sensible way to solve that problem.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:57 AM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

This isn't quaint or beautiful. This is the sort of mess you get when government run public transportation systems fail or get deliberately dismantled.

My perspective is that you can be dismayed by the way some of these governments fail their people, but impressed by the ability of the people to come up with ingenious, dynamic, workable solutions in instances of state failure.

Dayo Olopade wrote a book called The Bright Continent that discussed this phenomena and called it kanju - ‘a specific creativity born from African difficulty.' Much of the book is about how development efforts focus on formal institutions like the state, but would be better served paying more attention to the wealth of African-generated informal-sector solutions to problems.

Think about it - they might have their problems, but throughout Africa, you can use these public minibuses to travel to the most remote village in the most remote area. For all our wealth and strong central government in the US, there are plenty of places that are entirely inaccessible to public transport. Many of them aren't even particularly rural!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:28 AM on August 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is very cool. I've visited Nairobi a few times and saw this map hanging at iHub. I was admiring it one day when one of the locals came over to me. She told me, 'it looks pretty but no one who lives here can use it. It looks too different from their mental maps.' And I totally get that. I'm so used to looking at transit maps of NYC or London that I forget how many levels of abstraction they represent. It makes me wonder whether the teams, which I'm sure include usability experts, will update the maps so that they fit into people's preconceived images or whether continually seeing maps like that will change the way Nairobi residents see their own city.

I rode in matatus a few times (with locals), but it was like everything in Nairobi. I would ask, 'is it safe for me to do that?' and the person would say 'of course it's safe, but....' and then proceed to tell me some hair raising story or add so many exceptions ('but not at night,' 'but not by yourself,' 'but not if the matatus has just come from an unsafe neighborhood') that I never wanted to leave my hotel again. It doesn't help that the recent terrorist attacks, including some in matatus have made the whole country incredibly (and understandably) nervous.
posted by oryelle at 7:00 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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