To ride a bus, you first must know where the bus is going and where it stops. But in Beirut, and in as many as 60 percent of the world’s urban places, there’s no transportation map. The Lebanese capital’s bus system, run by a constellation of private operators and drivers who change by the day, has no assigned stops.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
So in 2017, students at the American University of Beirut formed a startup, funded by grants and sponsorships, called Yalla Bus. Its goal is to prod more students like them onto the city’s opaque and sometimes diresputable bus system. (Yalla means “Let’s go” in Arabic.) At first, the group wanted to create an app that might transmit real-time bus schedules straight to users’ phones. But they realized they needed something simpler first—a map.
“We wanted to do something to help reduce traffic, help the environment, help people get around in something cheaper than taxis or than having a car, because some people can't afford one,” says Yara Nassar, now a former AUB student with Yalla Bus.
To pull off their map, the group did the logical thing: They started by taking the bus and routing paths by hand. Then they talked to drivers about their routes. They visited the owners of the bus fleets that operate in the city, and convinced them to allow the startup to mount GPS trackers on their vehicles. Last month, after two years of work, Yalla Bus rolled out its bus map online. It also went analog, printing and distributing around 3,000 paper copies at the city’s universities.
The AUB students are not the only ones mapping informal bus systems. A civic tech group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says more than half of the world’s big cities lack transportation maps. In the past five years, volunteer mapping enthusiasts in cities including Cairo; [Managua], Nicaragua (https://www.mapanica.net/); Amman, Jordan; Nairobi, Kenya; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia have taken to routes all over their cities to put what already exists onto paper, or into computer data, to be crunched or analyzed. (Lebanon even has another, earlier volunteer mapping group, BusMap.me.) Many of these groups hope to one day use the information they glean to get the attention of local or national authorities—and to use their data to improve the overall transportation systems.
Creating a map doesn’t impose order on the system. Quite the opposite, the volunteer cartographers say. Sarah Williams, a professor of technology and urban planning at MIT, started working in 2012 with local groups and universities in Nairobi to map the city’s popular but privatized minibus “matatu” system. She now works to create digital tools to help other grassroots organizations pull off similar projects across the world. “These bus systems are sometimes considered so informal and rogue, but the maps show that there is an order,” she says. “There is, in fact, a system, and the system could be used to help plan new transportation initiatives.”
The maps and data have allowed some of these informal bus systems to tap into government resources—and private ones. That’s exactly what’s happened in Nairobi, where since 2014 the Kenya National Highways Authority has collaborated with NGOs like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and UN-Habitat to use the matatu mapping project’s data to create plans and recommendations for a bus rapid transit system in the nation’s capital. The Nairobi project also worked to ensure that its data was in the right format to slot into other digital tools, like Google Maps. Today, riders in the city can use the app to track bus times the same way they might in cities with formalized transit systems like New York, Berlin, or Tokyo.
Something similar happened in Amman, after a coalition of progressive groups in 2014 created an initiative called Maan Nasel (“Together, we will arrive”). The goal was to get more people to ride the 75 or so bus, minibus, or routed taxi lines in the city and its suburbs, and also to make the system more navigable to the roughly 14 percent of city residents who already used it, according to the group. “We found that even regular users would use public transport only for their regular trips, like going to work. If they wanted to make a different trip, they wouldn't know which routes to take, so they would just take a taxi,” says Hazem Zureiqat, a volunteer with Maan Nasel who is also a full-time transportation consultant.
The group knew that the Amman government had limited data on the services that operated in the city. (It was, after all, the body handing out official operating licences.) But the group was unable to get hold of that information. So Maan Nasel volunteers grabbed their smartphones, hopped on the buses, and used tracking apps to map their trips. Amman’s system also has no bus stops, so after uploading the data the group had to create some, outlining where riders might stand to hail a ride. The group also created its own route numbering system, to help riders differentiate between buses.
By 2016, Maan Nasel had rolled out its first map of the transit system, a colorful spaghetti schematic that sprawls beyond the capital and into other parts of Jordan. The visualization has surprised many residents. “I’ve shown our map to so many people, and they look at it and say, ‘This is great. Is this going to be implemented?’” says Zureiqat. “They think it’s some futuristic system, but it actually exists today.”
Today, the group works closely with the Jordanian government, which has taken a new interest in public transport and adopted the informal bus mapping project as its own. The next step, to begin this summer: The group will start mounting trackers on the buses, to stream real-time routing information. It wants to build an app.
In Beirut, the government so far has been happy to let volunteer mapping organizations do the work of collecting and maintaining data, says Nassar, of Yalla Bus. And the bus system still has its problems. It can be slow and unpredictable, and the vehicles are not always well maintained. Many students would still rather use their phones to hail a ride through Uber or Careem, or drive themselves. By the end of this year, Yalla Bus would also like to roll out its own bus app, so students can use their phones to find another way around the city.