New Maps and Open Data Pave Way for Nairobi BRT

Flickr, Trekking the Planet, CC

Matatu minibuses congregated in downtown Nairobi. Credit: Flickr, Trekking the Planet, CC.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a million. Recently released research on transit patterns in Nairobi puts the power of a map in the hands of the people and urban planners. Using data they collected, the Digital Matatus project, a collaboration between students and professors  at Columbia, MIT, the University of Nairobi and design firm Groupshot, published a map showing graphically for the first time the routes and stops of Nairobi’s informal matatu minibus system. The map not only illuminates the complex and oftentimes confusing system that moves nearly a million people every day, but provides a basis for the future of transportation planning in Kenya’s capital. Immediately, this new data is proving useful and important, as ITDP incorporates the information into models and recommendations for Nairobi’s first ever BRT corridor.

The new map provides important insight into transit patterns of Nairobi’s travelers. With a clearer view of the system’s routes and transfer locations, matatu riders can find easier paths to their destinations. While the map is most well-known in planning circles for providing useful information to the general public, its underlying data is proving equally useful to planners and local government officials in understanding current travel patterns and enhancing their ability to plan for the future.

Critically, the researchers entered the data into the open format General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), a common format for public transportation schedules that allows the data to be used for travel apps and system modeling. Along with exciting projects in Dkaha, Manila and Mexico City, the Nairobi project is one of the first to bring informal transit into GTFS, allowing more dynamic trip planning for users and advanced network analysis for planners.

An inset of Nairobi's City Center.

An inset of Nairobi’s City Center.

 

The Matatu network extends to all parts of the city.

The Matatu network extends to all parts of the city.

ITDP, in a partnership with the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) and UN-Habitat, is the first to make use of the wealth of data available, building off the dataset to develop plans and recommendations for the upcoming BRT along the Uhuru Highway. “It has been a tremendously useful tool,” said ITDP Africa Program Associate, Chris Van Eyken. “The data allowed us to build a model of transit ridership along key routes, giving ITDP and our partners the information to create a robust series of plans and recommendations for the Uhuru Highway BRT.”

Despite their importance to Nairobi’s public transportation network, matatu buses, stuck in traffic congestion and often poorly maintained, are insufficient to meet Nairobi’s growing transit needs. The planned BRT will increase mobility, provide an alternative to driving, and expand options for movement across the city. ITDP Africa will release a complete transit model in spring 2014, thanks in part to Digital Matatus, demonstrating the ways in which BRT will fit into and improve the transportation network in Nairobi.