• This website includes dozens of videos, hundreds of essays, and thousands of drawings created over the past twenty years. Search to learn more about the history of buildings, places, prisons, Newark, New York City, and my PhD research on spatial inequality.

  • Or scroll down for the latest publications.

Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective

This project in two parts is a brief history of city planning in Jersey City
and a building-level interactive map of the entire city in 1873, 1919, and today.

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Read / download book as PDF

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Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective
A booklet about the history of the master plan

Over its four-century history, the evolution of Jersey City mirrors the larger history of the New York region. Each generation of Jersey City residents and political leaders have faced different urban challenges, from affordable housing, to clean water, to air pollution, and income inequality. Each generation has responded through the tools of city planning and the master plan.
Jersey City’s six master plans – dated 1912, 1920, 1951, 1966, 1982, and 2000 – capture the city at six historical moments. Reading these plans and comparing them to each other is a lens to understand urban history, and American history more broadly.

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Classroom Discussion Questions

1. How has the built environment of Jersey City evolved in the past century?
2. Who has the right to plan a city?
3. Who has the right to shape a city’s future?
4. Do you feel you have power over the plan of your city?

Read More

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Time-lapse History of the United States

This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.

Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?

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Sources:

1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0

2. Social Explorer. https://www.socialexplorer.com/

3. U.S. population over time

4. Top ten largest U.S. cities over time

The Detroit Evolution Animation

Created in gratitude to the University of Michigan’s PhD program in architecture
Related: The New York City Evolution Animation

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Soundtrack: “Pruitt Igoe” from Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio and composed by Philip Glass.

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This film traces Detroit’s evolution from its origins as a French trading post in the 1700s, to its explosion as a metropolis, followed by its precipitous decline as a symbol of America’s post-industrial urban landscape. The film weaves in details about the city’s politics, population, and technology – all of which influenced the city’s geography and built environment. At each phase in urban history, the built environment grew and was modified in direct response to political events like racial segregation, population changes like the Great Migration, technology developments like the mass-produced car, and government interventions like urban renewal.
The animation tells the story of Detroit specifically and the story of American cities more broadly. To varying degrees, the path of Detroit’s development mirrors hundreds of other smaller cities and towns scattered across the American Northeast and Midwest. No other American city witnessed as large a population loss, as dramatic 1960s racial unrest, or as radical a transformation from symbol of progress into symbol of decay. To a lesser degree, other places in America followed Detroit in lockstep. Urban renewal projects, highway construction, racial tensions, suburban growth, and infrastructure under-investment happened across America, and in parallel to Detroit.
However, the most dramatic transformation of Detroit is left unwritten in this film. Beneath the surface-level events of political conflict and urban change, the largest event in Detroit is not unique to Detroit. As filmmaker Godfrey Reggio describes, the most important theme in the history of civilization is “the transiting from all nature, or the natural environment as our hosts of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu into mass technology as the environment of life.” European cities developed slowly and gradually over centuries, in the process removing all memory of the natural landscape before civilization. American cities are unique in their youth and speed of growth. They are new enough that an active memory survives through place names and written records of the landscape and indigenous peoples who lived there before colonization. As the oldest colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, and as the city that perfected the mass-produced automobile, Detroit becomes the prime symbol of man’s transformation of his home from a natural world into a technological society removed from nature.

View map bibliography and project methodology

Includes links to download all source files on which the film is based

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The accompanying music is by composer Philip Glass and was written for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi. The shifting layers and repetitive phrases of Glass’ music accompany Reggio’s montages of natural landscapes, factory assembly lines, and chaotic city streets. Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance” in the language of an indigenous American tribe called the Hopi. In the original documentary, Glass’ music was paired with scenes of desolate streets in the South Bronx, the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis, and ruined skyscrapers falling in slow motion. In my reinterpretation of Glass’ music, the imagery is now of Detroit in maps. The pace and events in the animation are tied to the structure of the music. As the volume and speed of the music increase and decrease, so too does the growth and decline of Detroit.

View music in original context

Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi; composed by Philip Glass with images by Godfrey Reggio

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Population Changes to Detroit Over Time

Hover over infographic for details of each census year.

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The influx of Black people during the Great Migration and the outflow of cars from Detroit’s factories reshaped the city’s built environment and the American public’s perception of Detroit. Detroit is now thought of as a majority-Black city surrounded by majority-White suburbs. Today, 83% of Detroit’s population is Black, and only 11% is White. But the graph above shows that Detroit was majority-White until the 1980 census. For most of its history, Detroit was 95 to 99% White. Today, the majority of the metro region’s population lives in the suburbs that surround Detroit. But until the 1960 census, the majority of the population lived within the city limits. Today, Detroit is so reliant on the car that it has no commuter rail network, no subways, and limited public transportation options. But until the 1950s demolition of Detroit’s light rail network, a majority of residents lived within walking distance of a light rail station for commuting. Detroit’s demographics, suburban sprawl, and transportation options have all flipped in the past century. From a high-density, transportation rich, and majority-White city in 1920, Detroit has become a low-density, transportation poor, and majority-Black city in 2020.
A lot of people say Detroit has terrible public transit design. But from the perspective of car companies, the real estate lobby, and fearful Whites, the system does exactly what it was intended to do: to segregate and divide our country by covert means long after Jim Crow officially “ended.” Failure by design. The failure of Detroit is, in large part, planned and a consequence of government policy decisions that: prioritize suburban growth over urban development; benefit suburban Whites over urban Blacks; and encourage private cars at the expense of public transit.
As the Detroit Evolution Animation plays, the map key on the lower right hand corner indicates Detroit’s demographics at each decade in history. Try to link changes to demographics with changes to the urban form. Ask yourself the questions: How were technology, transportation, and demographic changes imprinted on the built environment? How does the built environment, in turn, shape urban and suburban life?

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Decaying home near Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant

The time-lapse history of Manhattan in two minutes

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This two minute time-lapse reconstructs the 400 year evolution of Lower Manhattan’s skyline. Watch as the city evolves from a small village into a glistening metropolis.
This is also a film about the history of technology. Changing methods of representing urban space influence our perception of time and the city. When New York City was founded, Dutch settlers captured their town’s appearance through seventeenth-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, photographers started capturing their city from above through aerial photos. For the first time, New Yorkers could view the entire city in a single panoramic photo.
In tribute to this long artistic tradition, this film constructs the city as each generation of New Yorkers would have represented it: through the subsequent technologies of drawing, printing, photography, and film.
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New York City: Past and Present, 1870 and 2017

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Sound effects from Freesound
Water and cloud effects from YouTube

The Berlin Evolution Animation

Abstract: The Berlin Evolution Animation visualizes the development of this city’s street network and infrastructure from 1415 to the present-day, using an overlay of historic maps. The resulting short film presents a series of 17 “cartographic snapshots” of the urban area at intervals of every 30-40 years. This process highlights Berlin’s urban development over 600 years, the rapid explosion of industry and population in the nineteenth-century, followed by the destruction and violence of two world wars and then the Cold War on Berlin’s urban fabric.

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Animation der Wandlung Berlins

Zusammenfassung: Auf der Grundlage von historischen Karten visualisiert die „Animation der Wandelung Berlins“ die Entwicklung des Straßennetzwerks und der Infrastruktur Berlins von 1415 bis heute. In diesem kurzen Video wird eine Serie von 17 „kartographischen Momentaufnahmen“ der Stadt in einem Intervall von 30 – 40 Jahren präsentiert. Dadurch wird die Entwicklung der Stadt Berlin über 600 Jahre, das rapide Wachstum der Industrie und Bevölkerung im 19. Jahrhundert, die Zerstörung und Gewalt der zwei Weltkriege und abschließend des Kalten Krieges auf Berlins Stadtbild verdeutlicht.

German translations by Richard Zhou and Carl von Hardenberg

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Year, Event and Estimated Population
1415 – Medieval Berlin – 7,000
1648 – Thirty Years War – 6,000
1688 – Berlin Fortress – 19,000
1720 – Rise of Prussian Empire – 65,000
1740 – War with Austria – 90,000
1786 – Age of Enlightenment – 147,000
1806 – Napoleonic Wars – 155,000
1840 – Industrial Revolution – 329,000
1875 – German Empire – 967,000
1920 – Greater Berlin – 3,879,000
1932 – Rise of Fascism – 4,274,000
1945 – Extent of Bomb Damage – 2,807,000
1950 – Germania – World Capital
1953 – Recovery from War – 3,367,000
1961 – Berlin Wall – 3,253,000
1988 – A City Divided – 3,353,000
Contemporary – A City United
Census year
Jahr, Ereignis und geschätzte Anzahl von Bewohnern
1415 – Berlin im Mittelalter – 7,000
1648 – Der Dreißigjährige Krieg – 6.000
1688 – Die Festung Berlin – 19.000
1720 – Der Aufstieg des Königreichs Preußen – 65,000
1740 – Der Österreichische Erbfolgekrieg – 90.000
1786 – Das Zeitalter der Aufklärung – 147.000
1806 – Die Koalitionskriege – 155.000
1840 – Die industrielle Revolution – 329.000
1875 – Das Deutsche Kaiserreich – 967.000
1920 – Groß-Berlin – 3.879.000
1932 – Der Aufstieg des Faschismus – 4.274.000
1945 – Die Spuren des 2. Weltkrieges – 2.807.000
1950 – Germania – Welthauptstadt
1953 – Deutsches Wirtschaftswunder – 3.367.000
1961 – Die Berliner Mauer – 3.253.000
1988 – Eine geteilte Stadt – 3.353.000
Heute – Eine wiedervereinte Stadt
Jahr der Volkszählung

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Methodology and Sources

I chose not to represent urban development before 1415 for three reasons: Firstly, there are too few accurate maps of the city before this time. Secondly, I needed to find accurate maps that had visual style consistent with later years, to enable easier comparison of development over time. Thirdly, the extent of urban development and population is limited (fewer than 10,000 Berliners).
There are numerous maps showing Berlin’s urban growth. Yet, few of them are drawn to the same scale, orientation and color palette. This makes it more difficult to observe changes to the city form over time. Fortunately, three map resources show this development with consistent style.
  1. The Historischer Atlas von Berlin (by Johann Marius Friedrich Schmidt) published 1835 represents Berlin in the selected years of: 1415, 1648, 1688, 1720, 1740, 1786. This atlas is available, free to view and download, at this link.
  2. After the year 1786, I rely on three books from cartographer Gerd Gauglitz:
    Berlin – Geschichte des Stadtgebietsin vier Karten
    Contains four maps of Berlin from 1806, 1920, 1988 and 2020. Read article.
    Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im Vergleich
    Contains four maps from 1742, 1875, 1932 and 2017. Read article.
    Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im VergleichErgänzungspläne
    Contains four maps from 1840,1953, 1988 and 1950. The last map from 1950 is speculative and shows Berlin as it would have looked had Germany won WWII and executed Albert Speer’s plans for rebuilding the city, named “Germania.” Read article.
    Gerd Gaulitz’s three map books can be purchased from Schropp Land & Karte.
  3. I also show the estimated extent of WWII bomb damage to Berlin. This map is sourced from an infographic dated 8 May 2015 in the Berliner Morgenpost. View original infographic. This infographic is, in turn, based on bombing maps produced by the British Royal Air Force during WWII (and Albert Speer’s c.1950 plan for Berlin).
Below is an interactive map I created of the Berlin Wall’s route and the four Allied occupation areas:

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Population statistics in the 17 “cartographic snapshots” are estimates. The historical development of Berlin’s population is known for a few years. For other years, the population is estimated with regards to the two censuses between which the year of the “snapshot” falls.

California Waterscape: time-lapse history of water supply

California Waterscape animates the development of this state’s water delivery infrastructure from 1913 to 2019, using geo-referenced aqueduct route data, land use maps, and statistics on reservoir capacity. The resulting film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of every year since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. This process visualizes the rapid growth of this state’s population, cities, agriculture, and water needs.

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Music: Panning the Sands by Patrick O’Hearn

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Dams and Reservoirs

^ Created with open data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and visualized in Tableau Public. This map includes all dams in California that are “50 feet or more in height, or with a normal storage capacity of 5,000 acre-feet or more, or with a maximum storage capacity of 25,000 acre-feet or more.” Dams are georeferenced and sized according to their storage capacity in acre-feet. One acre-foot is the amount required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot (equal to 325,851 gallons or 1.233 ● 10liters). This is the unit of measurement California uses to estimate water availability and use.

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Aqueducts and Canals

^ Created with open data from the California Department of Water Resources, with additional water features manually added in QGIS and visualized in Tableau Public. All data on routes, lengths, and years completed is an estimate. This map includes all the major water infrastructure features; it is not comprehensive of all features.

 

Method and Sources

The most important data sources consulted are listed below:

This map excludes the following categories of aqueducts and canals:

  • Features built and managed by individual farmers and which extend for a length of only a few hundred feet. These features are too small and numerous to map for the entire state and to animate by their date completed. This level of information does not exist or is too difficult to locate.
  • Features built but later abandoned or demolished. This includes no longer extant aqueducts built by Spanish colonists, early American settlers, etc.
  • Features created by deepening, widening, or otherwise expanding the path of an existing and naturally flowing waterway. Many California rivers and streams were dredged and widened to become canals, and many more rivers turned into “canals” remain unlined along their path. Determining the construction date for these semi-natural features is therefore difficult. So, for the purposes of simplicity and to aid viewers in seeing only manmade water features, these water features are excluded.
Download and edit the open source QGIS dataset behind this animation.

Here Grows New York City

Music: “The Language of Cities” by Maserati

1. The Animation

Here Grows New York visually animates the development of this city’s street grid and environment from 1609 to the present day, using geo-referenced road network data, historic maps, and geological surveys. The resulting short film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of the built-up environment at intervals of every 20 to 30 years in history. This process highlights the organic spurts of growth and movement that typify New York’s and most cities’ development through time. The result is an abstract representation of urbanism.
Featured in:
– Laughing Squid   March 12, 2019
Viewing NYC   March 14
– silive.com   March 14
Open Culture   April 17
– Columbia Data Science Institute   May 1
– Library of Congress Blog   May 2
– Kottke.org   May 6
NYNJ.com   May 13
– 6sqft   May 13
– UK Daily Mail   August 28
– LangweileDich.net   June 11, 2020
– Wikipedia
New Amsterdam History Center   December 1, 2020
Bunk History   July 2021
– Camden Town, 2023 textbook by Westermann Group
– Inspired by Cambridge University’s London Evolution Animation and this map of Barcelona

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2. The Interactive Map

The results of this animation are transformed into this fully interactive map

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3. Research Method

Several hundred maps in the digital archives of the New York Public Library and Library of Congress were analyzed to assemble this film. About 25 of these maps were then selected, downloaded, merged, stretched, and warped in a single document to align with each other. This provided a consistent scale and allowed easier comparison of differences between maps of different date. As the source files were all in different colors, scales, and designs, we created a single base map with unified graphics. The redrawing not only permits correcting errors in less accurate old maps but also provides a graphic representation that is consistent over time. This coherence allows the rate and trends in urban growth to be read more easily and compared between eras.
Click here to read the research methodology and list of maps consulted.
Or watch the video tutorial below of the workflow and software behind the animation

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4. Conclusions and Analysis

This data visualization informs our analysis of the history of the New York City grid. This analysis reflects on the question: What can the built environment of Manhattan’s streets reflect about the evolving social and economic priorities of city planners and leaders? The long phases of urban growth and shifting transportation modes created distinctive road networks in Manhattan. The predominance of different forms of transport during each era also prompted changes to the location and dimensions of streets in response. Manhattan illustrates the evolution of these road networks over four centuries of near continuous growth. A plot can describe a street grid, as well as its builders’ story. This paper aims to tell this second plot, a story of urbanism.
Click here to read the conclusions as part of a working paper
written with Professor Kenneth T. Jackson.

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5. Credits and Appendix

This project would not have been possible without the support, mentorship, and patience of my parents, Anne Mabry and Zemin Zemin Zhang. Nor would this project have been possible without the historical expertise of Columbia University professors Kenneth T. Jackson (History Department) and Gergely Baics (Urban Studies). Thanks is also extended to those who reviewed and critiqued this project in its early stages, including Chris Kok, Wright Kennedy, Dan Miller, and the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia’s Department of History. Most importantly, I thank my dog ChoiChoi.

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Anyone may reuse or republish this content, so long as credit is provided with the link back to this page. If you email [email protected], I will gladly send along the graphics, maps, and source files associated.

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24 Hours in the London Underground

Audio effect: Heartbeat from Freesound

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Through analyzing 25,440 data points collected from 265 stations, this animation visualizes commuting patterns in the London Underground over two weeks in 2010.
Each colored dot is one underground station. The dots pulsate larger and smaller in mathematical proportion to the number of riders passing through. Big dots for busy stations. Small dots for less busy stations.
Dot color represents the lines serving each station. White dots are for stations where three or more lines intersect. Each dot pulsates twice in a day: Once during the morning commute; and again during the evening commute.
By syncing the audio volume with the density of riders and the background color with the time of day, the animation becomes acoustically legible. The audio volume rises and falls to mirror the growth and contraction of each colored dot during the daily commute.

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The rhythmic pulsing of commuters is analogous to the breathing human body. The passage of red blood cells from the lungs to the organs is analogous to the movement of people to and from the city’s own heart: the downtown commercial district. This analogy of human form to city plan is a longstanding theme in urban studies.
See my film about commuting patterns in the NYC subway.

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The Data

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Method

No single data set could capture the complexity of a metropolis like London. This animation is based off of open-access data collected in November 2010. According to Transport for London: “Passenger counts collect information about passenger numbers entering and exiting London Underground stations, largely based on the Underground ticketing system gate data.” Excluding London Overground, the Docklands Light Railways, National Rail, and other transport providers, there are 265 London Underground stations surveyed. For data collection purposes, stations where two or more lines intersect are counted as a single data entry. This is to avoid double-counting a single passenger who is just transferring trains in one station en route to their final destination.

Every fifteen minutes, the numbers of passengers entering the system are tallied. This yields 96 time intervals per day (4 x 24). Multiplying the number of time intervals (96) by the number of stations (265), we get the number of data points represented in this animation: 25,440. Each station was assigned:

  • A location on the map of latitude and longitude
  • A color according to the lines extant in 2010: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City.
  • A circle scaled to reflect the number of passengers moving through. Stations range in business from a few hundred passengers to over 100,000 per day.
  • A time of day: each 15-minute interval becomes one image in this film. Overlaying these 96 “snapshots” of commuter movement creates  a time-lapse animation. Thus, a single day with 25,440 data points is compressed into a mere 8 seconds.

Sources

Station Coordinates: Chris Bell. “London Stations.” doogal.co.uk (link)
Ridership Statistics: Transport for London. “Our Open Data.” (link)
Click on the section “Network Statistics” to view “London Underground passenger counts data.”

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Powered by TfL Open Data. Contains OS data© Crown copyright and database rights 2016.

Railroad commuting patterns in New Jersey

View my data visualizations of New Jersey’s suburban growth here.
Created with data from NJ Transit on weekday and weekend rail ridership.
Or download my data from Tableau Public.
NJ Transit carries over 90,000 commuters per day to and from New York Penn Station, the busiest rail station in the Western Hemisphere. The construction of this rail network in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was focused around New York City. Like spokes on a wheel, these rail lines radiate from the urban center.
Hover over stations to view statistics. Dot color corresponds to train line. White dots are for stations where multiple lines intersect. Dot size corresponds to number of riders per day: Large dots for busy stations and small dots for less busy stations. For each station, the average number of daily riders is listed.

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The map above shows weekday ridership patterns. Movement is centered around the employment hubs of Newark and New York Penn Station. The next two busiest stations are Secaucus Junction and Hoboken, but these two stations are not destinations. Instead, they are transfer points for commuters en route to New York City. Commuters collected from stations on the Pascack Valley, Bergen County, and Main Line are almost all headed to New York City, but they must transfer at Secaucus (to another NJT train) or at Hoboken (to PATH / Hudson River ferries).

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This map shows Sunday ridership. On average, stations are 66% to 75% less busy on weekends. The thirteen stations along the Montclair-Boonton Line – between Bay Street and Denville – are also closed on weekends because ridership is so low. However, the only line that is almost as busy on weekends as it is on weekdays is the Atlantic City Line. This is likely because trains on this line serve weekend tourists to the New Jersey Shore and Atlantic City casinos.

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Notice the large difference between the first four stations and all others listed. Keep in mind that a lot of this data double-counts a single passenger. For instance, someone riding from their home to work will be counted once in the morning, and again in the evening.

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Writing Here Is New York in 1949, American writer E.B. White has this to say about suburban commuters:

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“The commuter is the queerest bird of all. The suburb he inhabits […] is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man who lives in Mamaroneck or Little New or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch. […] About 400,000 men and women come charging onto the Island each week-day morning, out of the mouths of tubes and tunnels. […] The commuter dies with tremendous mileage to his credit, but he is no rover. […] The Long Island Rail Road alone carried forty million commuters last year, but many of them were the same fellow retracing his steps.” (p.18-21)