What’s the fastest mode of travel to get somewhere? A group at the MIT Media Lab made some maps which try to answer that question.

All images from You Are Here Washington DC.

Click on a zone on the map (which match Census block groups) and it color-codes whether it’s fastest to walk (green), bike (orange), take transit (blue), or drive (red) to the center (centroid) of each other block group in the city, based on the Google Maps API.

The map generally shows places somewhat close by as yellow (bicycling is best). Often Google Maps does indeed say that bicycling is faster than driving for many locations. The authors also added some extra time to the driving trip to account for the time it takes to park and walk to the destination.

The maps show how much transit’s usefulness varies

We can observe some trends from these maps. One is that transit is much more valuable to residents in some parts of the city than others. For example, in Anacostia, transit is a pretty fast way to get to a lot of the city, at least on the Green Line:

Head a little farther from Metro, and it’s not so much.

We can understand why downtown businesses are pretty solidly supportive of transit: it’s the best way for a lot of their customers to reach them.

Rock Creek Park is a big obstacle, particularly for bicycles. That can give the bus an edge over bicycling if you’re crossing Rock Creek:

The map can help show why in parts of upper Northwest, like Tenleytown, there’s strong support for transit and a lot of demand for car-free living …

… while people in other neighborhoods not so far away might have a hard time understanding what all the fuss about car-free living and bicycling is all about.

The map is a blunt tool

Before anyone goes planning where to live with this map, there’s a lot that’s imperfect about it. By using the centroids of each block group, there’s a lot of arbitrary variation. If one block group’s centroid happens to be right near a Metro station or bus line while a nearby one isn’t, then you’ll see more blue blocks for one than the other.

Parking does add to the time cost of driving, so it’s appropriate for the authors to add extra minutes to car trips for it. However, that also varies greatly. If you’re driving to a part of the city with ample parking, or to stores with parking lots, you probably don’t need to factor in much time. If you’re going downtown or to a dense neighborhood, parking might take a long time. The map doesn’t seem to account for this.

The instructions already note that it doesn’t factor in financial costs, such as the cost of parking (which also varies enormously based on where you are going) or transit fares. People also bike at different speeds, though it’s hard for a map to easily capture that.

It’s also too bad the map doesn’t include Arlington or other nearby areas. It would be very interesting to see the maps for areas near Metro stations outside DC.

Even so, the maps do illustrate important truths. Each of us sees the city and region in a different way based on where we live. In some sense we’re all living in slightly different cities and regions. This perspective shapes how we think about transportation. And even imperfect maps like these help point some of these differences out.

What do you notice from these maps?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.