I have a love-hate relationship with the New York City subway, like many who claim to be citizens of Gotham. At rush hour, it is crowded, hot, and often slow. From years of riding its squeaky trains, it’s given me a permanent ringing tinnitus in my ear. But, it also represents the best of NYC and America. It’s this once public place where all social classes, all ethnicities, and all immigrants mix – where their normally separate lives are momentarily shared. Rich or poor, almost all of us ride the subway.
I’m an architectural history and urban studies undergraduate at Columbia University. Over the years and in classes, I encountered the theory that the mathematic theories of fluid dynamics can explain the causes of traffic jams. So, I began asking myself, how far can one extend the analogy that traffic is fluid? For instance, could the movement of people in the subway system be visualized as analogous to the rhythmic breathing of the human body?
Linguistically, we often describe cities in terms of our bodies. For instance, major roads are described as “arteries” in reference to the human blood stream. The sewers are the city’s “bowels.” Or, Central Park is “the lungs of the city.” At various times in history, key industries like manufacturing were described as the “backbone” of the city’s economy. Cities are overwhelmingly complex organisms. But, this wordplay makes the giant metropolis somehow more human and familiar.
I began this project after I realized that tourists are often overwhelmed by the large crowds and seeming messiness of public places like Times Square. In fact, this movement of people is highly ordered, structured, and rhythmic – as Manhattan’s population swells during the daily commute and then contracts by night. Give or take a few chokepoints, the system works. My hope is this animation renews people’s (and my own) appreciation for this engineering and the people behind it.
Maybe the visual language of data can address this deeper need to humanize and soften this concrete jungle.
Railroads, roads, and subways are New York City’s circulatory system. Every weekday, the subway transports 5.6 million and brings 2.5 million commuters to and from work (from 2017 stats). This daily rhythm of population growth and decline breathes economic life into this city.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) publishes data on the weekly and weekend (Saturday + Sunday) ridership at each of its ~425 stations. These statistics, updated yearly, are publicly available and can be analyzed to track trends in movement and urban growth. The MTA data is not georeferenced, and the NYC Open Data does not include ridership statistics. I therefore merged the georeferecned data from NYC Open Data with the ridership statistics from the MTA to create this animation.
The MTA data was downloaded, analyzed, and then plotted onto the city map. Dots are color-coded according to the subway lines they serve. White dots are for junctions between two or more lines. Dot size corresponds to the number of riders who swipe into each station with their metro card during each 24-hour period. Larger dots are for busier stations; smaller dots are for less busy stations.
Commuting patterns are analogous to the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the human body while breathing. By contrasting weekday and weekend ridership patterns, we detect the city’s respiratory system. Each passenger symbolizes the movement of a single blood cell, operating as one cellular unit in a complex system.