Just how far can you get from Midtown in 40 minutes on the subway? Thanks to a new, interactive map from one developer, you can visualize which train lines will stretch that $2.75 the most!
A quick click on NYC Subwaysheds — invented by Mapbox developer, NYU professor of urban planning, New Yorker and “data junkie” Chris Whong — reveals a color-gradated map of destinations possible in 40 minutes between each station in the city’s subway system. The map’s technology employs data from the MTA’s station timetables to create an isochrone – a transportation data model defined as points on a map at which something arrives at the same time. A trip from Midtown’s Times Square/ W42nd Street Station, where you have the choice of taking the A/C/E, 1/2/3, N/Q/R/W, 7 or S shuttle can, according to Subwaysheds, get you as far as the end of the 1 line at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Jamaica Center in Queens or Newkirk Avenue in Brooklyn.
In line with any analysis of the city’s transit system, the map has inspired passionate debate among commuting New Yorkers. “These are some really optimistic travel times,” said one Reddit user, referencing the MTA’s less-than-stellar track record for on-time arrivals. Others countered that a 40-minute commute as dictated by the map is indeed possible. “40 minutes of travel time is about right, in my experience,” wrote another user. “That just doesn’t take into account the 20+ minutes you waited for the train to arrive in the first place.”
“It’s not really a trip planner,” Chris told W42ST, “It’s much more for the overall visual and to give a semi-reasonable visual impression of which areas are accessible from a train station.” He added that the map’s timetables are set from noon on a weekday, rather than a rush hour or late night trip. “It’s best not to get caught up in whether a particular point is on one side or the other side of a line, but to take a step back and look at the overall picture and understand the reach from a given place. When you run your mouse along one of these train lines, you get an on-the-spot animation to see how things change the further out you move,” said Chris. “It’s kind of captivating to see just how far you can get, and as soon as there’s a transfer involved, how the reach spreads out in multiple directions. It is something everybody already knows, but when you see it, it hits you a little bit harder.”
The map could also help “long-distance” romances between New Yorkers living at far-flung subway stops. “Somebody said on Twitter was that this should be on every dating app,” Chris laughed, while others suggested adding similar technology to real estate listing websites. “When you go look at an apartment listing, you see a list of subway stations or subway lines that are nearby that doesn’t really tell you what the access is like,” explained Chris. “Isochrones tell that story in a direct and useful way — because maps are meaningful to people. While you can go to Google Maps and look for point-to-point directions, the isochrone is the same as doing a thousand directions requests all at once to paint a picture. And a picture is worth a thousand words!”
Chris’s love for transit data goes far beyond this latest hobby project. Originally from Maryland, he moved to New York to obtain a Masters in Urban Planning from NYU Wagner, where he now teaches. “When I started in urban planning at NYU a decade ago, the Open Data Law had just been passed in New York City — and I got consumed by the open data movement and the civic technology movement while I was learning about transportation, housing, and all of the other systems we cover in the planning curriculum. I was fascinated with the interesting ways to analyze and visualize all of the data about the built environment in and about our city.”
A European transit isochrone model called ChronoTrains.com was the inspiration for the Subwaysheds platform. “Chrono Trains, which was built by another mapping and technology enthusiast, shows how far you can get in five [the maps has since extended to eight] hours from any train station in Europe,” said Chris. “What was striking about the project was the user experience and how you can navigate it just by moving the mouse around — there’s an instant gratification of seeing your options in a rapid-fire way.”
As part of his job at Mapbox, Chris hosted a spotlight with ChronoTrains developer Benjamin TD. “I asked him very pointedly if there had been any copycats of this yet,” Chris said. “He said no — and I told him I was going to try to build one for the New York City subway, which I ride every day. I wanted to replicate this amazing project but add my own style and New York City flavor.”
In creating the platform on his own, another New Yorker — Hell’s Kitchen resident and developer Ben Muschol — provided a crucial assist for Subwaysheds, Chris explained. “I was able to borrow code to make the subway signs from the nycguesser app [an interactive game where users can guess the location of a subway station] and that saved me hours,” he said. “He was delighted to see someone get value out of what he made, and said that when he was making nycguesser, he had used some of my subway data from another project — so it was a great, full-circle moment.”
Ben, who originally developed nycguesser while passing time on a Zoom meeting, added, “I was thrilled that Chris was able to use my work. As I started building my game, I noticed that he was by far one of the most prolific developers in the (albeit small) space of NYC-based devs working on transit-related projects. I had never worked with this type of dataset before, and I leveraged some of Chris’ work in my app. So it was rewarding to see that he got some value out of my projects as well. Small open source projects very often feel like sending your code into the void to never be seen again, so it’s exciting when something you work on actually helps someone else.”
As for future transit data projects, Chris had “an idea for a thing called subway roulette, where you would click a button and it would roll the dice and give you a place to go within a certain amount of time. I abandoned that project, like many others that I start and never finish,” he laughed. “But now that I have the data of the timetables between each station, I might revisit it.”
Other transit systems like buses and bikes would be harder to manage, he said. “These can get too busy and you’d need an actual use case,” explained Chris. “But if there’s enough demand or I feel so inclined, I might start adding other modes — it does add complexity to maintain and this is a hobby project! But we’ll see how popular this thing becomes, and if people start using it for more than just exploration.”
Has Subwaysheds changed his own travel patterns? “I work full-time, and I haven’t had a chance to go on a full subway adventure yet,” said Chris. “But when I look at my own station, it intrigues me to think, ‘should I go to the end of this 40-minute bubble, and beyond the places I normally visit?’”