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Animated map brings San Francisco transit to life

TransitFlow wants to untangle transit web

TransitFlow, an experimental mapping project made for San Francisco-based software lab Mapzen, released a map depicting 24 hours worth of public transit in the city.

The program’s creator, a Columbia University grad student with the fortuitous name Will Geary, synthesized SF’s comings and goings by bus, train, ferry, cable car, and subway for the day of August 15, 2017.

The effect looks an awful lot like a circa 1980 arcade game, with multi-colored dots whizzing bullet-like through street corridors.

At the height of rush hour, over 700 mass transit vehicles took to the streets that day (at least according to the schedules—real commuters know there’s a certain margin of error in such things). Whereas the witching hour between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. saw fewer than 30.

An even larger map illustrates and animates transit for the same day across the entire Bay Area and beyond, reaching all the way out to Modesto, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa.

Be warned, the addition of 19th century French composer Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune makes this borderline hypnotic.

Notice how virtually all of Northern California shuts down transit around 2 a.m., but San Francisco keeps things moving. Note also that over a third of the 2,100 or so vehicles at peak hours service San Francisco.

Okay, so it looks cool. But what does it actually tell us?

In a corresponding blog, Geary cites Bay Area transit consultant Jarrett Walker (the same consultant who recently took Apple to task for stiffing transit riders by putting the front door to Apple Park on the wrong side of the building) on the importance of transit frequency:

People who are used to getting around by a private vehicle (car or bike) often underestimate the importance of frequency, because there isn’t an equivalent to it in their experience. A private vehicle is ready to go when you are, but transit is not going until it comes.

High frequency means transit is coming soon, which means that it approximates the feeling of liberty you have with your private vehicle – that you can go anytime. Frequency is freedom!

And by extension, low frequency is inhibiting. To the point that if a service comes infrequently enough, all but the most needy of travelers won’t bother.

Geary says that his map animations (which he uploaded the formula for to GitHub, for those interested in exploring their own) create an intuitive and easy to understand bird’s-eye view of transit frequency:

Static transit maps provide geographic context but do not give any information about frequency. Timetables provide information about frequency but can be overwhelming, unintuitive and lacking geographic context. Perhaps we can use visualization to [...] make it easier.

So, staring into the frantic, multi-colored mass of Bay Area transit on the move, what do riders and observers see? Maybe an insight that will eventually change the way commuters commute. Or maybe just a brief distraction while we wait for the 14 Mission to arrive. Time will tell.

Photo via Wikicommons