NYC scaled to commute time

What would New York City look like if the distance between places was actually the time it takes to get between them in rush hour?

One of the ideas that comes up semi-regularly in neuroscience is multi-dimensional scaling. In a nutshell, MDS is a set of algorithms whose intent is to take a set of distances, and produce a (usually) 2-D map that matches them. For instance, you might want to make a map of “taste”, so you ask people which is similar to which: chocolate vs steak, milk vs soy, ramen vs eggs and so on. You take these similarity measures, and produce a map of the land of taste.

This is a pretty neat idea that I think bears some more exploitation. And of course, being someone who spends a lot of time on the NY subway system, I couldn’t help but think of how you could use it to see the real geography of New York (or at least the geography that chronic MTA riders slowly build in their minds). That is, the map of New York where the Upper East Side isn’t that close to the Upper West Side. The map where Time Square, Union Square, and Grand Central are all close neighbors. The map where getting between Brooklyn and Queens may as well be a trans-Atlantic journey. You know, the real map.

This ended up being a bit more work than I was expecting, so I’ll split this post up. Today: the map. Soon: how I made the thing.

To begin with, here is a standard, to-scale map of the four Boroughs (Staten Island will be considered part of New Jersey for this exercise for reasons that will be explained later, no offense to either).


Here we see (using an overlay of a screenshot from Google Maps) the subway lines by their color, and areas in their proper geographical location. Now I’m going to measure the time it takes to get from one point in the city to another via the MTA (a whole bunch of times), and make a map where the distances match up with this time. For the geography nerds, this is called a Distance Cartogram. We can see it gives us a very different view:


(click on the maps to see full size).

The first thing I notice is how squished together lower Manhattan becomes, almost like a deflated balloon. As far as anything in Manhattan below 14th St. together with Borough Hall goes, you’re more or less living in the transit center. Of course, this is also where the greatest density of trains lives. Upper Manhattan is significantly wider, and is pulled toward Queens presumably with the combined power of the E, F, M, N, R, Q, and 7.

Brooklyn seems to pinch off around Borough Hall, making kind of a corner on the left. Brooklyn itself is also much larger in comparison to the squished Manhattan, and South Brooklyn now stretched quite far south, with Coney Island stretching off the map. Williamsburg and Greenpoint seem a little more connected by comparison.

Queens bends a little bit toward Brooklyn near Long Island City on the left (probably thanks to the G train) and near Forest Hills / Jamaica on the right (Probably due to the J and Z trains meeting the E). Jackson Heights however bends away from Brooklyn, and seems comparable more isolated than the other parts of Queens.

Finally, the winner for most isolated place (no surprises here) is the Rockaways. In fact, the software I used to calculate the trip times (Open Trip Planner) failed to find paths to several places around there. Seriously far.

For the more curious, here is a version of the rescaled map with the Google overlay removed. The individual neighborhood are labelled here, so you can see exactly where your ‘hood fits in.


Next time I’ll talk about how I went about making this thing (for anyone that wants to do something similar / better maybe in their own cities), and a few possible applications of this outside of picking which neighborhood to move to. Maybe a bonus version of this done for Manhattan alone if I have time.

Updata: NYC scaled to commute time, part 2