Making sense of Nairobi’s informal public bus system


One popular way to get around the busy Kenyan city of Nairobi is the matatu. That is the name for the informal buses that pack in passengers to bring people around the city and its suburbs. Passengers negotiate fares as they climb into the beat-up Toyota vans that bear a resemblance to the Volkeswagon bus.

Routes are numbered and known by the passengers. There are no handy maps hanging at stops with schedules and stop points. Visitors will often choose the far more expensive taxis to avoid the hassle of figuring out transfer points and squished accommodations.

The transit system in Nairobi is unregulated, aside from basic rules about speed, vehicle decor and uniforms. Routes developed as a result of the network of drivers and city population demands. It is easy to believe that such a system would be riddled quirks and inefficiencies.

Turns out that is not the case.

Enter a team from MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, Columbia University and the University of Nairobi. They have managed to track and map the more than 100 matatu routes of Nairobi, with a project called Digital Matatus.

click to see larger map
click to see larger map
digitalmatatus/Civic Data Design Lab MIT

What may seem like disorder in the city is a pretty well planned bus system that covers a significant portion of the metropolitan area. All of the specific stops are not documented, likely due to the fact that they are not consistent, but major hubs and stops were determined.

Atlantic Cities spoke to the team behind the map and their motivations for building it.

“We recognized that if there was going to be any kind of improvement of this system in Nairobi, then people would need to be able to see it and visualize it and speak about it as a system,” says Jacqueline Klopp, an associate research scholar at Center for Sustainable Urban Development…

“It is not as chaotic as people think it is. They have routes, they have numbers. There’s very, very regular stops that the city didn’t plan. I think it really helps people to see that there is this system that you can then improve on, that it’s not just a chaotic mess.”

The team used the GPS on cell phones to track routes and stops while traveling on each of the number matatus. Their hope was to make sense of the system so that the city has the opportunity to step in and improve its efficiency. For example, many of the routes end in the center of the city (see below) at a series of terminals and stations located close to each other.


Matatus emerged in Kenya during the 1950s. It really took off following Kenya’s independence in 1963. It’s name is shortened from the Kikuyu phrase mang-otore Matatu (thirty cents) referring to the price of the transport. The name was shortened over time to simply matatu.

Now, roughly 20,000 buses and matatus help to clog the city’s roads. The Kenyan government estimates that $585,000 is lost each day due to traffic jams. Nearly half of all people in Nairobi use the matatu as their primary mode of transport. Efforts are underway to build new roads and a mass transit system, but the matatu is still the dominant form of public transit.

Linking the bus routes in a way that makes it easy for people to get to downtown Nairobi while keeping fewer matatus out could help reduce traffic. The map may also benefit commuters and visitors alike. I know I will be putting the map to use the next time I am in Nairobi.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]