Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
BlankWays keeps track of which streets you've been down, and plots new, untraveled routes.
In his final year at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, Tom Loois received a vague assignment: “Design your personal definition of silence.” Loois, whose training is in product design, had no idea what to do. He found himself, as the deadline approached, wandering around the city searching for inspiration. Then he noticed a little alley near his route home from school.
“I stopped my bike,” he says, “and I thought, ‘I’ve passed by here so many times but I’ve never been here.’ I don’t know where it goes, where it might lead.” It was a eureka moment for the Dutch designer. “I found my silence in the places I’d never been.”
Loois’s final project ended up being a smartphone app called BlankWays, which charts your progress through the city, noting which paths you’ve come down before and suggesting itineraries to cover new ground. The app indicates and measures which parts of the city you’ve traveled, and which you haven't:
Loois, who calls himself a translation designer, liked the idea of putting three-dimensional experience onto a map; translating from one medium to another. When he began to think about silence as blank spaces on the map, he started to revisit — with the help of a bicycle and Google Streetview—his own journeys from his time in Eindhoven. The results were underwhelming. Loois’s weekly paths were limited to the mundane routines of daily life:
“I noticed when I made those maps,” Loois says, “That normally, moving yourself to a supermarket or a school or a bar is really a functional thing. Now, I started looking and thinking, I always take the same routes to school, but if I go left here I’m in a completely different neighborhood I’ve never been to.”
Here are his cumulative maps of his years in Eindhoven. The degree to which they follow our intuition - that long, connecting streets would be checked off all around town and smaller streets unseen, except towards the city center - is remarkable. Places visited:
And not visited:
Loois isn’t the first person to meticulously chart his travel through the city. There’s a guy in New York who has made it his goal to walk every single block in the five boroughs. (It’s supposed to take him two years.) And technology corporations like Google and Apple regularly keep track of their clients’ movements. But Loois’ app will make it easy for everyone to do so, on a street by street scale, just for fun. He claims that he's not consistently late as a result of the detours, but we're not so sure - filling in those white spaces looks like it could become an obsession.
"Just the fact that you go somewhere you’ve never been is quite refreshing," he says. "All your senses get opened up. Whether it’s beautiful doesn’t matter—it’s the fact that you’re experiencing things."
*Addendum: There is not yet an "app for that" available to the public--stay tuned for updates via Twitter and on Cities.
All images courtesy of Tom Loois.