boston: revealing the beauty of the useful bus

There seems to be no end to the uses creative people can find for NextBus feeds. This from Bostonography:

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 14.24.08

Screenshot of MBTA Bus Speed Map. Live version available at :

This map shows point-to-point speeds for MBTA buses across the Boston area. Like a stoplight, red lines are the slowest, green are the fastest. While the content of the map is unsurprising (freeways and tunnels make up the fastest segments, downtown streets and major intersections the slowest), this type of visualization is valuable because it takes the seemingly mundane function of a complex transit system and transforms it into a beautiful, comprehensible piece of art.

When we talk about beauty in transit, its easy to get stuck on the characteristics of the vehicles themselves: that shiny streetcar, or the sexy new buses for a branded express service. Properly displayed by someone with a sophisticated design sensibility, the mobility and access that a transit system can provide comes into focus as a dense latticework of possible trips. Local bus service might seem mundane when seen on the street, but visualized in terms of its utility as a system enabling people to get where they are going, it can be be a thing of beauty. 

6 Responses to boston: revealing the beauty of the useful bus

  1. BenK June 12, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Having lived in that area for a decade or so, without a car, I feel I can comment on the map and its utility. I feel it does not ‘reveal the beauty of the useful bus.’ It is not very comprehensible and does not provide a good sense of which buses are useful, in general or specifically. The ‘as the crow flies’ mapping strategy, which creates crazy distortions, is obvious. Many of the most useful lines are red – they overlay a subway line which provides the equivalent express service, but for people who cannot walk a significant distance, the bus essentially adds door to door service. The most useful of these are slow but very high frequency (every 2-3 minutes sometimes). Other useful bus lines provide a ‘circle route’ (like the 66) that bridge subway/trolley high frequency lines (red to green, for instance).
    Anyway, revealing the beauty of the useful bus is a very hard problem; I’d love to see it done. So many Boston buses are very useful.

  2. Zoltán June 13, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    I’m going to assume the fast freeway buses are often infrequent express routes – not very useful to many people.
    If one mapped wait+travel times in a similar format, that would start revealing a whole lot about the the network – though perhaps no more, and no more beautifully, than a well-drawn map that highlights frequency.

  3. Zoltán June 13, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    What I do enjoy about this map is that it illustrates the points of friction where multiple flows of traffic rub together, so to speak, and slow each other down; in a red that makes me think of, say, the places where a new pair of boots rubs against one’s feet.

  4. Kenny June 13, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    This could almost be turned into a transit map. Just map each line to the route the bus follows, and put multiple trips on the same segment next to each other so that it looks like a thicker line. Then you get a transit map where thickness tells you the frequency and color tells you the speed. Include all the rail and other transit as well, and then you have a full transit map of the city, where thickness and color tell you all that you need to know beyond the topology of the network.
    (I’ve been considering design very much like this for the past couple weeks, but don’t know anything about extracting data from GTFS or creating maps.)
    One further question I’ve been considering is how to decide on the green-to-red color scheme. (I’m not sure what they’ve done for this map.) My thought was to represent speeds in minutes per mile, rather than miles per hour. The difference between 10 minutes per mile and 15 minutes per mile is much bigger than the difference between 5 minutes per mile and 6 minutes per mile, but those are both differences of 2 miles per hour.

  5. Miles Bader June 13, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    I dunno, the picture may be pretty, but when I lived in Cambridge, I found the bus network downright awful… slow, unreliable, way too many insane homeless guys, etc. It’s “useful” for cases where there’s no other choice, but that’s not saying a whole lot.
    I tried to use it at first but quickly realized it was almost always better for my mental health to take a less direct route on the T or just walk.

  6. Matt Miller March 3, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Nicely answers the ‘where to put the dedicated lanes’ question.