What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Swarming Lights and Tadpole Trains Bring Public Transit to Life

This week, a co-worker introduced me to a series of time-lapse animations that visualize a 24-hour stretch of public transit in various cities.

Here’s New York, which resembles a frenzied swarm of LED ants, or as Mashable describes it, “a Lite-Brite time lapse.” (Remember Lite Brite?!)

Each color on the map corresponds to a bus, train or subway route. And even at 3 am, the city buzzes with activity.

Andrew Walker, a software developer with Sumus Technology and the creator of the videos, told me that he conceived the idea in July, while attending a meeting of his local Vancouver transit authority, TransLink. In many cities, he learned, public transportation data on bus and train stops, transit routes and timetables gets regularly fed into a system that’s been standardized by Google to be used for Google maps.

So he went home and, using that data, custom-built a computer program that mapped a full day of bus, train and subway operation in Vancouver. He set the music to the tune, “Lotus Eater” by Supersonix, and on August 7, uploaded it to YouTube.

And then he mapped Toronto. And then Montreal.

“Assuming the data is all good, it only takes 10 or 15 minutes to generate another video,” he said.

Since early August, Walker has created 46 data visualization maps. He’s mapped Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg; Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Washington state ferries. He’s mapped Auckland in New Zealand, Perth in Australia and Manchester in the UK.

The videos have highlighted neighborhoods with poor transportation, such as the Southern part of Vancouver. He recently added tails to the trains in the Philadelphia video, which makes them look like little tadpoles and distinguishes them from the buses, which are slower and carry fewer people.

“It seems to be generating some discussion about the role of transit, which is always a good thing,” he said of the videos. “If someone requests a city that I haven’t yet done I’m happy to create it…assuming the data exists.”

And indeed, the requests keep coming in. After mapping two Ohio cities, for example, an upset viewer posted this comment on YouTube: “Cleveland and Cincinnati, but not Columbus?” it said.

So last night, he mapped Columbus.

(From 2010, here’s a look at how others have used transportation data to visualize traffic.)


  • There’s a new contender for the oldest dinosaur.

  • Following NASA’s somewhat underwhelming announcement on the much-anticipated news on Mars on Monday, the space agency has announced plans for a brand new Mars rover set to launch in 2020.

  • “The unstoppable Voyager 1 spacecraft has sailed into a new realm of the solar system that scientists did not know existed,” the Associated Press reports.

  • Smithsonian magazine, on the origins of boredom.

  • New research suggests that active people who take ibuprofen as precaution before workouts may do more harm than good, particularly to their intestines.

  • Why do elderly people get swindled so easily? There may be a scientific explanation, Nature reports. They don’t know whose faces to trust.

  • From BoingBoing, molecules with silly names.

  • How often do you find yourself throwing out moldy bread? It turns out about one-third of all the bread produced gets thrown away. That’s a lot of waste. A company in Texas has developed a preservative technique that keeps bread and other foods mold-free for up to 60 days. The result: less wasted food. But how does it taste?

  • Stuck in the desert and craving that perfect hard-boiled egg? No problem, thanks to this nifty cardboard contraption, brought to you from Russia.

  • How many people are in space right now?


Wildlife ecologist Danielle Garneau is hunting roadkill — that’s right, roadkill — to learn more about animal migration patterns. NPR reported on the story earlier this week, describing a rabbit, a bloody squirrel and “an almost unrecognizable raccoon.” From the online piece:

The project facilitates engagement with the natural world, even if that piece of nature is a smelly skunk decaying on the side of the road.

Joshua Barajas, Jeremy Blackman, Travis Daub, Geoffrey Guray and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.

Latest News