Leveraging Technology to Improve Transportation in Nairobi and Beyond

By Christina Olsen

For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.

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Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Jacqueline Klopp about using technology to improve transportation in Nairobi and other African cities. She is an Associate Research Scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University and teaches Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Her research focuses at the intersection of sustainable land use, transportation, planning and democratization. She is writing a book on the politics of planning in Nairobi and is taking an increasing interest in ICT and questions of public participation in policymaking around planning. She is also a co-founder of the blog NairobiPlanningInnovations and the Digital Matatus project that mapped minibuses (matatus) in Nairobi and produced the first public transit map of minibuses for the city. Klopp received her B.A. from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Political Science from McGill University.

What are some of the transportation issues you research through the Center for Sustainable Urban Development?

Our center is in New York but our work is primarily in Nairobi with networks to many other African cities. We are all a part of a global conversation around how to build better cities. African cities are very diverse with different histories; some of them are relatively new and many are growing very fast. For instance, Nairobi is just a little over 100 years old with a population increase rate of about 4% per year, and even higher in some of the surrounding areas.

In parts of Africa the stark transition toward an urban future is unfortunately not equitable. Problems are emerging like poor air quality, lack of walk-ability, lack of accessibility and hosuing, and higher rates of traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries. A lot of infrastructure going in is also highly inequitable. The elite who have cars are a small but growing minority in places like Nairobi and they think of transportation as building more roads. They want freeways.

Almost any of the big African cities also have very serious traffic congestion problems. This is a result of high growth rates and under supporting and under investing in more transit oriented development, walk-ability, and more harmonious land-use and transport infrastructure. While these are problems cities face all over the globe, what’s unique about a number of African cities is their high growth rate and high number of transit users. So these issues are very urgent.

How do you even begin to tackle such problems?

What struck us after working with a wonderful set of colleagues in Nairobi for over ten years is that there is a win-win-win policy direction when you have a city that has 70% of its people every day using what is basically public transit in the form of private mini-buses. In addition, a good chunk of the population walk, especially the poorest. Essentially Nairobi is a walking and transit city.

So that’s an opportunity to emphasize good transportation: walk-ability, non-motorized transport, safe design, clean transport, and mixed use. These are what we need to make cities work, particularly regarding public health, transportation access, climate change, and the sheer livability of a city.
All of that makes sense from every direction except it’s not really what’s happening. So a lot of our research is on how public transit is working: how people are using it, how it can be improved, and how we can raise its profile in investment and policy conversations that tend to be dominated by interests that want to build highways. Roads are very important but highways are not good when they go through dense urban cores.

There’s a lot that we don’t to know and data we don’t have. In Nairobi everybody pretty much has a telephone so with the help of the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association (KARA) we did a phone survey. We found that over 80% of people feel they are never consulted in transportation decisions and that 30% of people with cars would enjoy riding a bike in the city if there was safe infrastructure. Biking hasn’t even been on the policy agenda.

How do you leverage the findings to create solutions?

One project we’ve been involved in is called Digital Matatus. The city of Nairobi did not have a public transit map of bus stops or where the little minibuses – called matatus – went. So partnering with University of Nairobi, the Civic Data Design Lab at MIT, and a little firm called Groupshot, we mapped out the public transit system and made that data open. So now there’s real public information and there’s been a lot of research done with it, particularly on accessibility and networks. One of the things we are quite proud of is that it’s the first African minibus system up on Google maps.
We’ve also been thinking about children and public health as a way to raise issues that people may not always think about. For example, there is resistance to lowering speed limits, partly because of the general image that car owners have of the pedestrian as an annoying adult that is trying to cross the street when they want to go fast. But they don’t even think that a pedestrian can also be a child trying to get to school, which often isn’t considered by the public either. When they think of the safety of children walking on or near a street, their priorities change. So shifting the conversation by bringing children into planning is very important. To help with this we collaborated with filmmakers to get children struggling on Nairobi’s streets to speak for themselves.

Through our air quality studies we’ve compiled data previously missing for African cities. We found that a lot of the pollutants come from vehicles. Particulate matter, that is particularly egregious from a public health point of view, is well above the world health organization standards in Nairobi. Sixty percent of people in our public opinion survey said there was a problem with the air and the majority felt it was affecting their health. This is another example of the kind of work we’re doing to put information and research on the public policy agenda in cities where it wouldn’t be otherwise.

Are there lessons that cities in other parts of the world could learn from your research?

I think we always learn from each other. For instance, our minibus mapping work showed that it’s possible to provide public data for transit systems with high levels of informality, such as those with shifting routes, a lack of schedules, and bus stops that are irregular, non designated, or not well-known. There is a particular standard for this kind of data called GTFS, or General Transit Feed Specification. If you put your data into this standard it is very easy to have it work with Google maps, transit planners, and other open source software. However, the specification was really made for formal bus and train systems like those in European and North American cities. Our Nairobi data didn’t fit perfectly so we had to figure out how to modify the standard to be able to include data from a more flexible kind of transit system. We engaged one of the Google employees and from those conversations there was a refinement to the standard.

A tech start-up out of Portland is working for the state of Vermont to build a passenger information service there, which will include rural transit systems that look a little like the minibus systems in Africa. The revised GTFS actually got applied to their work. That’s a wonderful example of innovation coming out of Africa having a useful impact elsewhere. Also, as the population ages there will be a lot more of what we call paratransit – different kinds of minibus systems that are more flexible and on-demand – for elderly or disabled people here in the US who are no longer able to drive. The African systems will be relevant to that too.

There’s also an activist hacker – or hacktivist – community around this. For a long time transit agencies were developing data but not making it open or putting it into a standard that would allow it to be used with open source technology. Bibiana McHugh at TriMet came up with the idea of creating a standard to get transit data on the maps of one of the big Internet companies. That led to GTFS, which was originally the Google Transit Feed Specification before it got renamed. Activists then started pushing for transit agencies like the one in New York to make their data open so that they could build apps to allow seamless navigation of public transit. Being able to easily figure out how to make connections to easily get from point A to point B encourages people to use transit. So a lot of people on the tech side are heavily engaged as transportation advocates. They even get together each year at an event called Transportation Camp. We need to support this kind of innovation that helps make public transport attractive and easy to use.

Do you think coming from a well-known academic institution in the global north helps or hinders your work in Africa?

It’s a bit of both. It’s always helpful to have an outsider perspective on any place. Which is why it’s also very enriching to have our African colleagues come to the United States to see our cities and give us commentary on them. There are also disadvantages because the people who should be leading all of this are the local citizens. That’s why my explicit policy is that I work only in collaboration and that my African colleagues are the leaders in the conversations and activism. I have a huge amount of respect for the community groups in the lower income areas of Nairobi and the hard work they do. There are very basic things we have in common, like whether the roads are safe or our children get to school safely. So that’s the basis for a very interesting conversation and collaborative creative intellectual process.

What’s coming up next for your work with the Center for Sustainable Urban Development?

Coming out of our mutual work on minibus systems, Herrie Schalekamp of ACET in Cape Town (see Researcher and Paratransit Operator Collaboration in South Africa) and I are going to be working on a project with the National Treasury in South Africa. Cities there have realized that they’re not going to replace minibus systems with BRT (bus rapid transit) or some shiny expensive system and a lot of them can’t afford these new forms of transit anyway. So there’s a need to improve the existing transit systems to get clean, safe, and higher occupancy vehicles with rationalized routes and passenger information. We also have to keep improving commuter rail, bike-ability, and walk-ability.

So we’re going to look at where interesting innovations have already happened in South Africa and learn wider lessons from them including for Nairobi. These innovations include creating passenger information systems, minibus incentive schemes for improved driving, and fleet renewal with cleaner vehicles. For it to work we need to engage with the people who really run transit in African cities. So we’re exploring creating new classes and curriculum including for minibus operators. Building on knowledge gained across the globe, we have also started a new class here at Columbia University on “Access, Innovation and the Urban Transportation Transition”, We’re also continuing building on these new ideas globally in collaboration with the other Volvo Research and Education Foundations centers and partners so that’s pretty exciting.


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1 Comment

  1. Very progressive and interesting.


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