Kenya's wild taxis captured on map

NAIROBI, Kenya — First there is a crescendo of groaning engine, rattling metal and a booming sound system. Then the horn blasts to announce the arrival of the matatu: a small, minibus taxi that is an icon of Kenyan travel.

The rickety shell of rusty metal, failing brakes and billowing exhaust waits impatiently on the side of the road for its latest passenger.

Then it is off again. Rushing through the city with no awareness of the rules of the road. Driving into oncoming traffic, zig-zagging through the cars and using pavements as short cuts. Avoiding the Nairobi congestion and confusing passengers by taking routes other than the prescribed one. It is a rollercoaster ride. Yet it is the main mode of transportation for Kenyans, whose average income of $2 a day, means the 30 Kenyan shilling (KES) ride is their only option.

To an outsider matatus look like pure chaos. But now a Nairobi-based company believes they can order the chaos into a map. Taking as inspiration the famous London Underground map — a design classic — KenyaBuzz has created a matatu map to guide users around the city.

Map of Nairobi's matatu taxi routes.

There is a clear system to the madness; it just takes some time and bravery to decipher. The man who hangs precariously out of the sliding door is the conductor. The number of fingers he holds up indicates the fare. Invariably the only seat available will require the moves of a contortionist to reach. And if there is no seat, there is always space — the motto of the matatu seems to be "pack them" — be it balancing on a stranger’s knee, hip or the edge of the metal frame seats. The stops are indistinguishable, and it requires some skill to spot the desired destinations through the blacked out windows and the throng of bodies.

Yet Kenya Buzz, a multimedia publishing company, believes that the matatu bus map it has designed has navigated the matatus maze and managed to plot their routes.

“They are regulated, they have routes they are meant to follow,” said Alix Grubel, managing director of KenyaBuzz.

“What you see everyday is chaos but this [the map] is very stylized,” said KenyaBuzz director, Marta Gloserova. The map is a conceptual, schematic, non-geographical layout. But in a country where maps are meaningless, where road signs are ignored and 26 percent of the population can not read, how useful will a matatu map really be?

“Surprisingly people who cannot read get on better with this type of map than a geographical one,” said Gloserova. The multi-colored lines work off an axis point of Mombassa Road, one of the main thoroughfares through Nairobi. This makes sense to the people KenyaBuzz has tried it on. “Our research has shown that educated as well as non-educated people are able to read it,” said Grubel.

The map was researched using a collection of matatu touts — men who round-up passengers at the main stages. Plying them with coffee in exchange for their insider information of the sprawling system, KenyaBuzz was eventually able to plot the matatu roots on Mymap, a Google application. But a geographical version of the map did not work, “It became so complicated and looked messy, it was not very user friendly,” said Gloserova. She decided to make a schematic version, hand-drawing a large design of the routes before giving it over to designers who created the finished product.

Further research and local feedback will improve the accuracy of the map but not everybody is convinced.

“I don’t think it will work, most of the matatus in Nairobi don’t follow instructions, they don’t follow routes,” said Hellen, a waitress in Nairobi who uses matatus everyday. Others are unimpressed by the proposed 200KES price tag ($3). Izzo Macharia, a medical engineer, believes that most Kenyans would view the map as a waste of money.

The target audience is a young demographic that KenyaBuzz believes will appreciate the stylish design and use it to expand their social scene. There are also plans to produce souvenir copies of the map and T-shirts for the tourist market. Alexi Coppinger who is an American volunteer working in Kibera — which claims to be Africa’s biggest slum — said “I think it is a good idea for people who are not use to matatus and the city.”

There is no denying the design feat that it took to plot chaos, nor the potential of tourist interest in a map that would explain the complex system of the capital’s transport system. What remains to be seen is whether the matatus themselves will change their ways, abandon bedlam and actually conform to regulated order.