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Maps

Build Your Own NYC Subway

A new game lets players and transit wonks tailor the city’s extensive but imperfect system to their needs—or overhaul it completely.

I deepened the reach of the L in my version of the 2016 version of New York's subway. (Jason Wright)

New Yorkers need no reminders that their subway system has its issues. Despite being the most extensive one in the country, the transit system is not easily accessible to everyone (especially those living in the far reaches of the city’s outer boroughs). Commuting by train often involves Hunger Games-style scrambles for spots in a teeming subway cars. And now, with repairs to arterial lines set to cause massive disruptions, the subway system’s many follies are even harder to ignore.

A bit of relief (or at least a little distraction) comes in the form of a new game that lets users tweak the system to their satisfaction—or do away with it completely and start over. Created by the Brooklyn-based electric engineer and transportation enthusiast Jason Wright, “Brand New Subway” is a game designed both for transit wonks to try out-of-the-box ideas, and for ordinary New Yorkers to re-imagine their surroundings.

Wright grew up playing “Sim City,” and perhaps that’s what sparked his love for transit. Over time, he stoked this interest through classes, books, educational projects—and more games.

“I’ve always felt that transportation policy is really, really important, but really undervalued,” Wright says, “especially in American politics—just in terms of its impact on the economy and poverty and health.”

His game is pretty straightforward to play: You can choose a blank slate—the “start-from-scratch” option—and put down New York City’s subway lines wherever your heart desires. Here’s a totally nonsensical version of the system that I created this way, for example:

(Jason Wright/”Brand New Subway”)

It’s also possible to extend and change lines on a base map of the current system, one from 2025 (with the Second Avenue extension), or a 1972 version based on a famous map by Italian designer Massimo Vignelli.

Based on population, employment-distribution, and transportation-demand data, the game tallies the total ridership for each version created by users. It assumes that each new station costs a fixed amount, and also calculates what the total cost of constructing the custom system would be. Using these two estimates, it pulls up the single-ride fare. It also gives the system a grade, based on the ratio of ridership to total cost.  

The 2016 base map gets an arbitrary “B” grade, and sets the curve. Based on the magnitude of each change to this map, grades will inch up, down, or stay the same. In the image below, for example, I’ve simply extended the L down from what it is now, and that didn’t really change the score. (The nutty system I created from scratch above, on the other hand, earned me a well-deserved “F.”)

Jason Wright/”Brand New Subway”

The game is still a work in progress, Wright says. He’s tinkering with the calculation methodology, in particular, to make it more sophisticated. But even in its present form, he hopes the game will teach people to think critically about the role transit plays in their lives—and the role it has the potential to play.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.