Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
How a startup mapped 657 routes, nearly 1,500m and 5,500 miles in three weeks.
It’s easy to miss Nyanga, one of Cape Town’s oldest black neighborhoods, on a map of the South African city. Nyanga doesn’t show up on the city’s official MyCiTi Bus Rapid Transit routes; it’s easily overlooked on tourism maps, too. Unless you zoom way in on Google Maps, the town is unlabeled.
But on a recent map, the neighborhood is boldly highlighted, as are the nearby townships of Langa and Khayelitsha—both of which are also seldom in the spotlight. The map, from the Cape Town-based startup WhereIsMyTransport, is one of the first to chart in detail the city’s informal minibus taxi system.
Nyanga, as it turns out, is a major transit hub where privately operated minibuses ferry daily commuters to the main metropolitan area and the suburbs. The map, which highlights 10 hubs and 137 routes, offers a peek at how vast that minibus network is. And key to illustrating that immensity is including the geography of the city. “Unlike [maps of] underground networks, the geographic relevance of where the route goes is very important, so we included all of the road names and references to the mountains and seas that are very characteristic of Cape Town,” says the map designer Jo Chevalier.
The map, she adds, is just one component of the startup’s latest undertaking. WhereIsMyTransport, which is on a mission to improve emerging cities’ transit systems through big data, tracked nearly 1,500 stops and 657 routes spanning more than 5,500 miles in Cape Town. The company has also made all that data publicly available through its API platform so developers, entrepreneurs, and even the government can create apps and other tools to integrate minibuses with the city’s official public transit network. In fact, the startup will host its first hackathon in March, and seats are already filling up.
Just as matatus serve low-income riders in Kenya, and boda bodas ferry those in Uganda who can’t afford official public transit, Cape Town’s 7,500 licensed minibus taxis cater to the underserved and mostly black population living outside the city center. In particular, minibuses grew out of apartheid, when pushing non-whites to the outskirts and excluding them from public transit deprived them of power and access. “The [informal] network was created to deal with the physical separation during apartheid,” says Madeline Zhu, the startup’s head of communications. “And they historically served communities of people displaced or forced out of their previous homes.”
Minibuses currently account for 15 percent of trips made via public transit, filling the gaps left behind by the city’s incomplete BRT and troubled metrorail systems. Privately owned minibuses are organized around hubs like Nyanga, and each has a manager coordinating the organized chaos. Still, taking minibuses has never been easy for the uninformed. For one thing, there’s no set timetable and no real-time tracking of when buses come and go. Destinations are yelled out from the front of the bus, and while the buses do regularly stop in certain locations, the route and arrival times depend on passengers’ requests. And drivers rarely have the time to entertain questions about fare costs so a smooth ride requires some insider knowledge.
So how do you map such a haphazard system? It’s been done before: MIT mapped Nairobi’s informal transit in 2014 and a group of young Egyptians are doing the same in Cairo. In Cape Town, the team used the government’s data on some of the routes as a starting point.
The project coordinator Graeme Leighton first employed a team of 13 data collectors to ride as many bus routes as possible over three weeks. Mobile phones were used to track the routes and to collect data about the buses’ operation—where they stopped, for example, and waiting times. All that data then were then fed into algorithms that can predict arrival time, frequency, and essentially create a rough timetable.
Meanwhile, the data collectors engaged with the people around them, making sure all routes were covered. “They interacted a lot with the [hub] managers and taxi drivers, finding out where the routes are, how many are departing from a point, where they went,” says Leighton. Daily feedback sessions allowed organizers to double check the data and ensure that lesser-known routes were also covered.
In the future, the team hopes that new technology like sensors can help them collect real-time data, which developers could use to refine more advanced apps and websites for commuters. And they hope to expand the method to other cities with a toolkit that startups and local governments can use to map their own informal transit network.
As for the physical map itself, designer Chevalier says it’s more of a conversation starter than a practical tool. Though apartheid ended in 1994, its legacy is still evident in the physical landscape and in the disparate access to public services. By mapping the informal minibus network, the map reveals underrepresented communities on the outskirts of the city center, where formal transit doesn’t reach. “So in that way it's enlightening to see Cape Town from a different perspective,” Zhu says. “And from that, you think of a map as an empathetic form of technology or document.”
You can see the full version of the map here.