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Your Rush-Hour Commute as an Animated Cartoon

Your Rush-Hour Commute as an Animated Cartoon
Dots on a Bus

If you commute during peak rush hour on a bus in just about any city, you've likely experienced the intimate joy of a stranger's backpack wedged against your belly, or felt the cough of a nearby passenger as if it were rattling in your own lungs. Better yet, you're probably familiar with that particular force of physics that occurs only on public transit during rush hour: Pack enough standing people tightly together on a moving bus or subway car, and no one has to hold on.

Few rush-hour commutes are fun. But we have at least found an amazing animation of the experience that restores some of the humor to the No. 9 bus in Zurich at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. Meet Dots on a Bus, an animated data visualization from Amelia and Adam Greenhall and Jared McFarland, which turns one week's worth of actual bus data from San Francisco, Zurich, and Geneva into a kind of addicting cartoon.

"We wanted to create something that was playful," says Amelia Greenhall. "Most transportation things are just so serious, and we wanted it to be fun."

Their project, which won an Urban Data Challenge we've previously mentioned, is built using data from each city tracing bus routes, when buses arrived at each stop, how long they stayed there, and the number of passengers estimated on-board (this last data point is calculated by lasers tripped when passengers on- and off-board at all doors).

Dots on a Bus plots all of those routes on a map of each city, with an animated overlay illustrating little bus icons as they motor along each route, with actual people – as colored dots – waiting to board and step off at each stop. The buses themselves expand and shrink with the number of passengers on board. You can click through different routes or days of the week for each city. And the picture gets particularly chaotic (or comic) at rush hour:

Geneva and Zurich have more buses out at most hours than San Francisco does. This is, in short, a bubbly animation of what a transit-obsessed city looks like.

"Looking at the Swiss cities made me jealous, for sure," Greenhall says. "Sometimes there’s a bus at every stop at the same time, which is crazy."

In fact, the effect was originally enough to crash some slow computers.

These maps were built with historic data from October of last year. But if real-time bus-arrival data were available, we can imagine these animations mounted from screens at actual bus stops, or on-board buses themselves. It would certainly be harder to whine about transit service when it's expressed in colorful avatars – or when you can see that the whole system is obviously working pretty hard.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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