Watch These Glowing Time-Lapse Videos Of How People Use Public Transit

These animated maps show the ebbs and flows of ridership in three major cities to help understand how our transportation systems work.

As more and more cities embrace the trend of open data–allowing app developers, planners, nonprofits, and other interested parties to curate, collect, and innovate on municipal data sets–data visualization has the unique power to help render that mass of information relevant to the statistically challenged.


A great example is the series Transit Patterns by the Seattle-based design firm Schema, an honorable mention in the contest Urban Data Challenge (which Co.Exist’s Ariel Schwartz helped judge last month).

Participants were asked to use public transit data, unlocked by the cities of San Francisco, Geneva, and Zurich, to create infographics that told a story about those cities’ complex systems. Schema responded with three time-lapse, heat-map-style videos, showing how the most-popular parts of the cities’ transit systems shift and redistribute over the course of 24 hours.

Some of the findings, according to the creators:

Ridership is an identifier for how cities are utilized–whether they are centralized, decentralized or have multiple focal points, whether activity concentrates during rush hour as people are entering or leaving the city center(s), or whether activity is spread out over time. As the transit passenger data suggests, Geneva is centralized while Zurich appears to have multiple centers, and activity is concentrated during rush hours. Activity in San Francisco on the other hand is more evenly spread out, both spatially and over the course of the day.

While each city has different layout that leads to different patterns, what they have in common, as you might expect, is the explosion of activity during morning and evening rush hours, and a near blackout overnight. But the more subtle differences, when presented visually like this, can help city planners and transit authorities to see where people are riding, and which areas might be helped by more transit options.

If you haven’t yet, check out the winners from the challenge here.


About the author

Zak Stone is a Los Angeles-based writer and a contributing editor of Playboy Digital. His writing has appeared in,, Los Angeles, The Utne Reader, GOOD, and elsewhere. Visit his personal website here.