When it comes to public transit, waiting is the hardest part.
It’s not just about delays; the amount of time you spend waiting for the bus or train depends first and foremost on the frequency of the route. But full schedules are often relegated to illegible timetables, and they’re difficult to depict on a map. For new riders used to the instant gratification of cars or bikes, concern about frequency can be a major barrier to trying transit. But cities are increasingly trying to bring this finicky information into the light of day. San Francisco made some progress on this front two years ago, when it debuted a transit map that used thicker lines to depict more frequent rail and bus service. Other cities have integrated their transit schedules with Google Maps and transit tracking apps.
And now, a new project called TransitFlow by the mapping startup Mapzen goes one step further, visualizing the frequency of a virtually unlimited selection of global transit providers throughout the day. While these maps won’t tell you what’s happening on the ground right now, they give a good sense of where you’re likely to find frequent all-day service, peak-hour commuter lines, and transit deserts. They also happen to be easy on the eyes, like one of those mesmerizing, minimalist smartphone games.
This animation of San Francisco begins at midnight. For the first few seconds, the city grows progressively emptier, as BART and Muni light rail trains cease operations. Then, at around 4:30 a.m., a trickle of red and green dots begins. They are soon followed by ferries in pink, and Caltrain in yellow, along with ever more busses in blue. The city is a whirl of hyperactivity for the rest of the day, with an emphatic peak during the evening commute, until service slows down again for the night.
Some readers might find these colorful, rhythmic maps familiar. In fact, TransitFlow’s creator, Will Geary, has previously created similar maps, sometimes set to music. What differentiates this project, however, is its access to Transitland, Mapzen’s massive open-source trove of transit data from around the world. Mapzen’s blog contains instructions for anyone to create a transit frequency map of their favorite city with just one line of code. The maps that Geary has created so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The day I posted it I saw people using it to visualize Lisbon and national Amtrak routes on their own. It’s pretty easy to use,” Geary says.
While TransitFlow remains an aesthetically pleasing novelty item for map lovers, it may one day have greater practical utility. “I think this tool is good for making comparisons visually. Whether it’s comparing different days or different cities, or existing and proposed transit infrastructure projects,” Geary says. “It has the potential to improve communication between engineers, cities and the interested public to talk about future and proposed transit scenarios.“
Check out a few more examples below: