Maptime Boston logo

Hi, Boston cartografriends!

This is just a quick note to let you know about Maptime Boston, a monthly mapping event that kicks off tonight. It’s about building an open, collaborative learning environment for open-source mapping technology.

Maptime is now a national idea, having originated at Stamen Design in San Francisco. Jake Wasserman (of Mapkin), Mike Foster (of MIT DUSP) and I are organizing the Boston chapter. We shared the goals and frustrations that inspired the original Maptime leaders: we want to be better mapmakers, and the technology is accessible and rapidly growing, but there are still significant entry barriers for newcomers wanting to learn.

For more about Maptime, see the Maptime website and “Why Maptime” by Lyzi Diamond.

Keep an eye on the Maptime Boston Meetup page for upcoming events. We hope to see you there!

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Spring map rundown

We’re still alive, maybe! It’s been tough to find time lately for major Bostonographizing, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been seeing some good maps and spitting out a few small ones ourselves. Here, briefly, are some assorted maps and map-related things from the past few months.

Original Aht


Look! ☞ Amazing map of the US drawn as if all states were renamed ‘Massachusetts’ & capitals ‘Boston’

Massachusetts population density in the style of a 1970s ‘computer drawn map’.


Think the yuppie invasion of South Boston is a problem? Just be glad the streets are no longer infested with stone-throwing boys!

Public improvements for the metropolitan district, a 1907 report, has some fun road diagrams. Bonus: at last visit, a few prints of some of these maps were for sale at Ward Maps.

New York to Boston in 40 minutes… would have been TERRIFYING on this thing!


Landsat 8 images from March and April show that winter has slowly receded from the area.

Other mappy things

The Boston Maps Project over at Northeastern should be interesting.

The Leventhal Map Center at BPL has a new exhibit, City of Neighborhoods—including a print of our neighborhoods map!

If you’re interested in map design, come next week to see our friend Mike Foster speak on Seven Habits of Effective Map Design. (And, in general, join the AvidGeo group!)

Posted in General | 2 Comments

The turkey menace

Happy Thanksgiving, Boston.

Today is the day. Today we make a stand against the horde that threatens our fair city—the vicious, evil turkeys! They have invaded our streets, they have stood in our way, and they have gone after our pets, our children, and our property. No more, Boston! Raise your forks and knives and turn the tide!

Thanks to Adam’s heroically vigilant reporting on turkey sightings, we are able to assemble this map as a rough guide to help you stay safe this Thanksgiving.

Oh, for the peaceful days of yore, when an innocent Boston child didn’t even know what a turkey was!

Life April 17, 1890

Send ’em running scared!

The Daily Express December 21, 1902

However you mark the day, be on your guard. They’re coming FOR YOU.

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Halftones: Walsh & Connolly

Following last week’s mayoral election in Boston, Andy made a series of 1 dot = 1 vote maps for Boston Magazine. Color me disappointed that these aren’t yet on a list of “20 stunning maps that will bend your mind with amazement, forever changing how you think about the world” on Fuzzbeed or the Puffington Host. They should be. Because, well, as Andy once said to me about an entirely unrelated matter, “just look at them.”

Anyway, Andy was kind enough to share his data with me so that I could play around with some election map ideas I’ve been kicking around. The result, for now, is above. It’s a halftone-style map showing areas won by each of the two candidates, Martin Walsh and John Connolly. In two nested grids, dots are sized proportionately to the number of votes received in that grid cell.

Conveniently for this style, the election was close. In a blowout, it would simply serve as a voter density map. Boring.

Posted in General, Political | Tagged , | 3 Comments

MBTA map redesigns

Remember the MBTA map redesign “competition” from the summer? Well, looks like a good number of people were glad to surrender the rights to their work for free, and we the public now get to vote on six finalists. (But don’t miss all the other submissions too.) To brush up on the problems with the current MBTA map, take a look at the review by the eminent transit map designer and critic Cameron Booth.

This is a Boston map blog, so what good would we be if we didn’t chime in with a few words on each map? They’ve all got some interesting ideas.

Map 1, by Michael Kvrivishvili

Cameron Booth also reviewed this one a while back, so maybe there’s not much to add. It’s a fairly conservative approach to improving on the current map—the overall style is similar but with a number of things that make it more usable. One thing that bugs me about this map is the sharp 90-degree turn of the blue line at State Street. Some older T maps had this too, and I liked that the more recent maps smoothed that out into something more gentle.

Map 2, by Kat Lawrence

This one is quite a departure from the current map. Corey Zev Holland makes a case for it.

What’s good
Separating the branches of the Green Line and the Red Line is very useful, mostly for the Green Line, and the different shading for those lines is nice for legibility. The topology of this map is great in a lot of places. It’s not just the connections between lines; out-of-system geographical relationships are implied nicely. For instance, notice how the E line stations line up fairly well with their Orange Line neighbors.

I think this map could use some basic geography underneath it to help users (tourists especially) find themselves. For example, it’s useful to know which side of the river you’re on, in my opinion. Showing water, at least, would also clarify where implied proximity is actually true. Reservoir and Cleveland Circle are quite correctly close to each other on this map, but it’s a similar distance from Aquarium to Maverick, when in fact there is a literal ocean between them.

Map 3, by Joshua Simoneau

Here’s one that is also pretty conservative in its changes, which is a nice, realistic approach to improving the MBTA’s maps. The shape of the existing map is largely retained, but there are plenty of changes.

What’s good
Again there are separate lines for different branches, which is great. I really like that the bus and commuter rail lines are pushed way down in the visual hierarchy, as these are responsible for a lot of the clutter in the existing map. Various little flaws in the current map are fixed here too.

The separate Green Line branches really need labels at their downtown ends to be useful. And as long as these maps have to show the commuter lines, it would be nice to see some improvements to make them more useful, since the way they branch out from one another is kind of complicated.

Map 4, by Kenneth Miraski

Well, interesting! This is very different from most transit maps.

What’s good
The style here is really fun and inviting. It’s a compromise between simplicity and geography, and it ends up working reasonably well. Representing subway versus surface lines is nice too, even though this only really matters for the light rail branches. Commuter and bus lines have a more ordinary style than the rest of the map, but still are decent.

Cameron Booth pointed out that the drop shadows on the ribbon-like surface segments have no consistent light source, which will now drive you crazy every time you see the map. Ditch the Boston city line, which is irrelevant to the MBTA system. The displaced labels on the Orange line through the SW Corridor (owing to the adjacent commuter rail) might be confusing. All told this map is probably too whimsical-looking to work as an official map, but it could do well in other settings.

Map 5, by Jon Feldman

This map gets away from the current one by blending a couple of different styles and making some additions.

What’s good
The downtown geographic map is a very interesting experiment. I like the attempt to show the actual relationships between stations in an area where they are nearby and distances are walkable. There are only maybe three parts of the MBTA system where this is true (downtown, the parallel Green/Orange lines from Copley through part of the E line, and the Cleveland Circle area), so it’s worth trying to show it in some way. The indication of bus frequency is a nice addition here, although I can’t quite tell what the third color means. Different line styles for street-running vehicles and dedicated paths can be useful, too.

Well, the geographic inset has its trade-offs. It’s good for the surface relationships, but this is also the area where underground topology matters most, and maybe simpler is better for that. And, as mentioned above, there are a couple other spots where it might be useful to show the surface geography, as long as the map is going down that road. Station labels on this map, with their bold text followed by lighter text, exhibit a good thought but probably wouldn’t work in reality. Yes, “Kendall” is the operative word, for example, but the signs and announcements read “Kendall/MIT” so the map should probably reflect that better.

Map 6, by Zemien Lee

This is another one that goes clearly in a different direction from the current map.

What’s good
I like that it’s, well, different. It’s very clear as far as topology and connections go, including the bus routes and all. Basic Boston geography (water) is shown, which is helpful, and it’s simplified down to what it needs to be and nothing more. Overall this is a very clean and clear map.

Clarity comes at a price: labels are far too small to work in the real world. Bus lines could be toned down a lot and still be useful while allowing the rapid transit lines to stand out as they should. The ubiquitous black transfer symbol is too much, too; it should be reserved for the Red/Blue/Orange/Green interchanges, with a subtler symbol for bus and commuter rail connections (which in many cases are essentially an out-of-system transfer).

In sum

All in all, each map has some pretty good ideas and styles that could be used in a new MBTA map. So good job by the T in soliciting some free work, I guess. It will be interesting to see how people vote, and what ends up going into a redesigned map.

One suggestion I’d like to make for any map: somehow indicate where you have to pay on board (as opposed to turnstile entry), i.e., the non-D surface light rail lines. And put up signs at these stations, too! Everyday users know the drill, but I’ve seen confusion by out-of-towners at places like the MFA stop.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged | 7 Comments

Mapping Hubway availability

As an occasional Hubway user, I sometimes feel like some kind of transportation gambler. There’s a risk with each trip. Will docks be available where I’m going? Will bikes be available when I want to return, and docks available back home? A losing bet can pretty easily turn a 10 minute bike ride into a 30 minute walk, or some kind of multiple-transfer MBTA nightmare. This is especially true if the trip is going to or from an area without redundant coverage, where there is no second station within convenient distance of the origin or destination.

My potential Hubway trips are frequently to the same place (Inman Square, specifically Parlor Sports of course) and at similar times, so I wondered if the station I want is always freakin’ full, or only often full at the time of day I want it. Or, more generally: when and where is Hubway generally available or unavailable?

By hitting the station data feed regularly, it’s possible to keep track of the availability of bikes and docks over time. This is done masterfully over here, where you can see charts showing when during the current day each station was totally full or totally empty. (Or see the summary of the previous day, and the links at the bottom to the same for many other cities.) Notice the green slivers showing times when every station in the system has both bikes and docks available—it turns out that 100% Hubway availability usually only occurs for a few minutes each day.

Of interest to a cartographer, too, is the basic map of overall Hubway availability (above) that colors each station according to how often it has both bikes and docks available and furthermore calculates some clusters of similar availability. I was motivated to expand on this idea to longer patterns by collecting more data and breaking it into a couple of different measures and multiple time slices.

So using approximately the past month of data, below is a series of maps of access to the Hubway system. A few observations follow at the end, but first a bit about the maps. They mostly represent the percent of time during which Hubway stations are available for use. They show a calculation of accessibility based on the following:

  • Distance: Hubway bikes are not available to you if you are too far from stations, obviously. For this part, 100% accessibility is assumed within 1000 feet of a station, and then it drops off farther away until somewhere around 1 km, at which point one is assumed to be beyond Hubway access. A simple distance map is overlaid on the interpolated availability maps described below.
  • Time: Like any transportation system, Hubway sees different usage patterns during different times of day. The small multiples show how availability changes throughout an average day. The time slices are the morning rush (6–9 AM), daytime (9 AM–4 PM), afternoon rush (4–7 PM), evening (7–11 PM), and overnight (11 PM–6 AM).
  • Station availability: This is the percent of time when stations were available. Availability is defined in three ways, each with its own set of maps.
    • Number of bikes available: If there are no bikes at your departure station, you can’t go anywhere, or at best you have to walk to the next closest station.
    • Number of docks available: If there are no empty docks at your destination, you’re in trouble, i.e., you can’t get there from here.
    • Number of docks and bikes available: The “overall” maps count a station as unavailable if it is either full or empty.


Overall access


Access to bikes


Access to docks


The maps above are all based on times when the number of bikes and/or docks was greater than zero. But if you’re like me, nonzero isn’t an assurance of availability. If I’m headed out and see that only one dock is free at my destination, it feels like a big risk. With that in mind, below is a series of maps based on a more comfortable margin: if a station has only one bike or one dock, it’s treated as unavailable.

Overall assured access


Access to more than one bike


Access to more than one dock


Having looked through all of that, a few observations:

  • There are gaps in Hubway coverage. Not that we needed these maps to know that, but besides the fringe areas, some of the interior is not well served, such as Cambridgeport and some of Brookline.
  • Daytime accessibility is good. In most scenarios, station availability is high and the maps are not easily distinguishable from a simple distance map.
  • Availability isn’t great in some high-employment areas. Probably the most dramatic thing in these maps is the emptying of Kendall Square in the afternoon. It makes sense that people would leave such a high-employment area in droves at the end of the day, but the Kendall area has also recently become a restaurant and bar hot spot, and Hubway bikes are not so reliably available during their busy evening hours. Similar patterns can be seen in the Financial District, the South Boston waterfront, and the Longwood area. Perhaps these places could use larger stations or more concerted rebalancing efforts.
  • Overnight: good luck! Access to docks during overnight hours—and bear in mind that much of this time is when the T doesn’t operate—is often limited in residential areas. If you’re out late and need to get home to Somerville, Cambridge, Brookline, Allston, Charlestown, the North End, or the South End, you may be in trouble. Usage overnight is low, granted, so it’s unlikely for someone to swoop into the last available dock before you do, but the stakes are high.

Overall the system is usable; there are few if any cases where stations aren’t available at least a majority of the time. And it’s a fantastic addition to the city’s transportation modes. But in a lot of situations it can’t be relied upon as the only transportation option. Never mind that it doesn’t even exist for a quarter of the year—you just never know when someone’s going to beat you to that last bike!

Posted in Transportation | Tagged | 1 Comment

Neighborhoods as seen by the people

UPDATE! We’ve got a new and better version of the neighborhood mapping project! Head on over to!

Below is a map that has been shown off a bit recently, both on Twitter and by me at a couple of events this month (namely, at a Boston Indicators Project open house and in the related Data Day also organized by MAPC). Loyal Bostonographers will recognize this: it’s an update to the survey data we’ve been collecting and last analyzed almost a year ago. Because the same types of questions invariably come up, I’d like to briefly explain what’s going on with this map.

Boston neighborhoods consensus

What is this?
This is a summary map of data collected in our neighborhood boundaries survey. We asked people to draw boundaries for 21 Boston neighborhoods and have overlaid the resulting shapes (about 4,800 from 950 respondents) to measure the amount of overlap and calculate consensus within each neighborhood.

Do people who live in a neighborhood see it differently from others? Do people who have lived there a long time see it differently from people who have lived there a short time?
Good question! Our survey did not collect any information on where people live or how long or anything like that. It’s a major reason why you should take this map with a grain of salt. Our results are interesting and should prompt further exploration, but they shouldn’t be seen as conclusive about anything because of the lack of this kind of information. Opinions of people who do not live in a given neighborhood shouldn’t be ignored, but to be certain about anything we’d do better to distinguish between residents and outsiders.

Why are Charlestown and East Boston excluded?
This survey was about the major top-level neighborhoods, and at that level Charlestown and East Boston can’t really be disputed because they are physically separated from the rest of Boston. Yes, there are smaller neighborhoods within both of them, but that’s not the level we were looking at here.

Then why are tiny neighborhoods like Bay Village and the Leather District on this map?
Quite simply, it’s because they are apparently important enough to have their own parking permits. That has a very practical impact on neighborhood definition.

Why is [Fort Point, Upham’s Corner, Readville, &c. &c.] not on the map?
See answers above. This map is about the larger major neighborhoods. Life may revolve around smaller subneighborhoods, sure, but that is for another survey. At the moment we’re interested in the fact that nobody can agree on the definitions of the big neighborhoods. An interesting future study would be more free-form, asking people simply to draw and name whatever they see as their neighborhood.

Why is Roslindale so ill-defined?
This may be in part due to genuine uncertainty about the neighborhood, but it’s also a lack of data. The outer neighborhoods didn’t get as many responses as the well-known inner neighborhoods. There is a lot of noise within the data, and when there isn’t enough signal to drown it out, the certainty appears to be less.

What can be concluded from this map?
As mentioned earlier, we can’t say anything confidently. But it seems that the old, central neighborhoods are easily defined—and fair enough, they tend to have distinctive visual identities that anyone can notice—while the other residential neighborhoods are less clear, even where there used to be real historical boundaries. The conclusion I’d suggest is that despite the practical necessity of boundaries, they’re arbitrary and meaningless in most aspects of life!

Posted in Projects | Tagged | 7 Comments

Live MBTA bus speeds

Live MBTA bus speeds map

‘Tis the season to revisit and update some of our past projects. You may remember the map from November 2011 showing 24 hours of GPS location data from MBTA buses, colored according to their speeds. (A local adaptation of maps made by the venerable Eric Fischer once upon a time.)

The cool thing about the existence of such a map in the first place is that the data behind it are live and constantly published. It’s the same data that has helped you catch the bus on time thanks to apps built around it. Every minute it’s something new, so why limit mapping to a single snapshot in time? I’ve learned better ways to automate this mapping since making that first map, so with a bit of code we can sit back and let the maps draw themselves as time goes on.

Starting today, we’ll keep an archive of daily bus location/speed maps, and also maintain more of a live map that shows the most recent data. The latter is a web map that you can pan and zoom, and it’s updated every hour. It shows either the most recent three hours—so you can look at different times of day and see, for example, the difference between rush hour and late night—or the full 24 hours of the previous day.

As the collection of archived maps grows, you can find a particular day’s map at a URL of this format:

The most recent day’s map will always be at:

Meanwhile, check out the web map, and discuss!

Live MBTA bus speeds map

Details for nerds

Design: The design and concept of the maps are essentially the same as the older map. They are partly meant to convey overall patterns of MBTA bus service and allow comparison over time, and partly meant to be pretty pictures.

Color: Unlike the original map, these are more true to the traffic light metaphor commonly used in traffic maps. I wanted to stick with this because it’s fairly well planted in most of our brains, and further because the colors are all vibrant (unlike proper sequential color schemes), which is important in an aesthetic piece like this. Red-yellow-green is a big problem for color blind people, however. Thanks to some tips from Twitter peers, I worked with colors that vary in levels of blue. Viewed through the helpful tool Color Oracle the colors can be distinguished, although obviously they’re not great.

Technical: We hit the NextBus data feed frequently and save bus locations to a database. The database keeps a rolling 24 hours of data, so old records are deleted as new ones arrive. Image rendering is done by some pretty simple PHP scripts that grab the data, string the points together into lines based on vehicle ID, calculate distances and speeds, then draw thousands of lines either on top of a street map image (for the static, archived maps) or on blank map tiles (for the web map). The code is available on GitHub, with the caveat that it represents an easy way of doing this, not necessarily a good way. Improvements welcome, especially if I can understand them!

Base map: The street map underneath the bus lines uses OpenStreetMap data and was a quick design in TileMill. In the web map, the tiles are served using this thing.

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A plow, now!

Remember that time last weekend when it snowed a whole bunch and we all waded through four-foot drifts to get out of the house, went skiing down city streets, or else enjoyed lots of bacon and beer in the comfort of home?

The geography of this event can be summed up as “snow everywhere,” but besides vague or anecdotal accounts there is some data to look at. Beyond the snow itself, we can track the progress of storm response. The city of Boston set up a web map that tracked the live location of snow plows and their ground covered, which would be excellent for a summary map, but in an excessive triumph the site was overloaded and had to be shut down because the demand was interfering with the city’s ability to track plows itself. (Otherwise, we could make a nice map like our friend Derek Watkins did for NYC.)

So instead of the plows, how about people clamoring for plows? The city compiled a list of snow-related calls from the ever fascinating constituent services request data, around 15,000 in total from Friday through Monday. Most of these calls are labeled as requests for snow plowing. While there are a couple of hot spots (er, cold spots?) geographically, the temporal aspect is interesting. Who was impatient on Saturday morning? Who still had a snow-clogged street on Monday afternoon? (To say nothing of the problems that have lingered for days more.)

Boston snowstorm complaints

And in animated form through the weekend (pretty much 100% copied from this map):
Animated map of Boston snow-related complaints

Conclusions? Well, none over time, really, except that peak complaint time everywhere was between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon. Overall, with a couple of exceptions there appears to be something of an inverse relationship between population density and request density. In high-density areas, plowing a single street satisfies more people than in a lower density area, where plows have to cover more ground to reach everyone. Some of the highest density areas are also important business districts too, and may have been a priority. Also, residents in the high-density areas are probably less likely to drive regularly, and thus there are fewer urgent demands for clear roads. Or maybe something else is going on. What’s your opinion or experience?

Whatever happened with snow removal, thumbs up to Boston for keeping the complaint data open and up to date!

Posted in Seasonal | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


New Yorkers want to own everything. Even the sunset once in a while: you may have heard of the phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge, when the setting sun aligns with Manhattan cross streets. It occurs twice a year—really four times if you count the rising sun, which is apparently too early for anyone to be in the mood to talk about.

Here in Boston, like most everywhere else in the country outside New York, we’re at the disadvantage of not having the insane skyscraper street canyons that make Manhattanhenge remarkable. But perhaps our lack of any overall street system makes up for it; Manhattan gets only a couple of days each year, while the sun rises and sets over different streets on a number of dates here.

Boston November sunset

For one thing we have MIThenge, when the sunset aligns with MIT’s Infinite Corridor. A phenomenon involving the sun’s reflection on the Hancock tower has also been noted.

As for streets, well, our straight streets don’t tend to be very long, but here’s a map of a few of those that theoretically offer views of the sunrise or sunset. (Click it for bigger, better size.)


This map is only based on geometry and a sunrise/sunset calculator, so it’s no guarantee of a good show, but these streets and others may be worth checking out on the right days. I think something fun could be done with “Commhenge” and the Prudential observation deck—as you may have noticed, the street points right at the Pru. You may know some other good streets from your own experience, so please share!

Go watch those sunrises and sunsets, Boston. Life is short; enjoy the colors!

Boston streets analemma

Tim said there should be a cool analemma infographic. I’m not sure I succeeded here, so let’s hope he’ll come to the rescue.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 10 Comments