ReThink Studio Blog: it’s what to read while you’re stuck on transit!

Welcome to the ReThink Studio Blog:
It’s What To Read While You’re Stuck On Transit!

5/14/18 by ReThink Studio

Understanding at Transit Data Visually

ReThink Studio specializes in strategic planning and design projects that aim to solve challenges that are deeply rooted in the complex physical and social fabric of cities. We often begin by looking at a region’s transportation networks, since its knockoff effects on housing affordability, neighborhood fabric, economic development, and access to employment can fundamentally shape the character of the city as a whole.

To envision how New York’s transit systems could work more effectively and efficiently in the future, you have to begin by understanding how they work today. Each of its component elements—the three commuter rail networks, Amtrak, New York City subways and buses, and the commuter buses that pour in and out of the Port Authority station—produces reams of data. Because each system presents its own data separately, it is hard to understand how they interact with one another, and what those interactions mean for the choices that commuters make every day.  

Central to our approach at ReThink Studio is how we synthesize that data and visualize the story it tells us. We haven’t always shared this analytical work publicly, but it is the foundation of the design choices we make and the policy proposals we create. With that in mind, we’re introducing this blog series to publish some of the maps and graphics we produce, accompanied by explanations of what each diagram reveals about the system and how it works. By breaking down our process step‐by‐step, these articles will share how we arrive at our plans for improving the region’s transit mobility.   

We draw on information from regional and local transit bodies such as LIRR’s Origin and Destination Reports, and government census data to create these images. By incorporating material from a wide‐range of sources, our office can create multi‐foundational illustrations that synthesize information from the entire metropolitan region, highlighting the surprising differences and similarities between each transit system. Most of our analytical graphics present all of the region’s transit agencies as a connected system, and give accurate and straightforward depictions of how each of these networks interacts with the others.  

Although the underlying data is almost always public, transit reports are often written for experts or for those within individual transit agencies. We’ve found that, especially for people who aren’t transit professionals, it’s much easier to convey complicated information when visualized, and we want these infographics to be compelling for everyone from commuters to transit agency staff alike. We believe that increasing the general literacy around transit issues, we can help enliven and inform debates surrounding commuter policy decisions to insure that our region makes the smartest choices about how to invest in our transit network.  

In addition to broader overviews, we will share articles that focus on specific characteristics of the system that come into sharp focus when they are shown visually.

While this blog will eventually include posts on all of our strategic planning work, we’re starting with our analysis of the commuter rail network. Metro North, LIRR, and NJ Transit are all superficially similar—each has multiple lines that transport over 100,000 commuters into the city daily—but when you really dig into the data, it becomes clear that they are vastly different. As we explore this network, we can discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of each line and each system, and how these features can inform our design choices and thinking about making them work more effectively individually and as a network.

For the team at ReThink, this kind of analysis has shaped and changed our thinking in important ways, particularly when it comes to understanding how “transfer penalties” actually work in practice. This is particularly important in a system as big as the New York region, where it is impossible to provide a one‐seat ride between every possible combination of major destinations and origins. Optimizing transfers—both within modes and between them—is one of the most impactful ways to increase transit ridership and make the system work as a true network, rather than a collection of lines.

Over the next four weeks, we will be focusing on the characteristics and major anomalies within each network. These will range from the lackluster performance of NJ Transit’s Secaucus Junction, to the relationship between Metro North’s New Haven Line and its secondary routes, to the unique nature of the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR. In each, our goal will be to accurately convey the attributes that fundamentally shape the quality of the metropolitan region’s transportation network. We’re excited to share this analysis, and hope you join the discussion.