A photo shows a London Underground sign.
Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Online artists are tracing transit lines onto aerial photos, offering a new way to visualize an often hidden mode of transit.

Subway maps are often iconic representations of their cities, even if they don’t show you what’s really happening on the ground. So what would it look like if, high above the skyline, you could actually see where trains were shuttling people around?

A group of digital artists is revealing just that, using photos taken from airplane windows to highlight the real footprint of metro systems in cities around the world. Starting with the aerial photos, like the ones your friends might post to Instagram after takeoff, the artists trace out the paths of transit lines in bold, bright colors—highlighting oft-underground networks from a vantage point where trains can be easy to ignore. The results are striking images that help us envision cities differently.

The trend first caught the internet’s attention with a 2013 view of New York’s subway by a Serbian artist going by the username “Arnorrian.”

http://arnorrian.tumblr.com/post/58077982773/sky-view-of-new-york-city-and-its-rapid-transit

Last month, a French student calling himself “Dadapp94” had the idea of recreating Arnorrian’s image using a picture of Paris they’d taken while flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. “What struck me was its simplicity,” Dadapp94 said in an email. “From the sky, [New York] just seems like a bunch of constructions stacked together. Highlighting the subway lines shows the reality of the city, what major routes people take.”

Making the image was pretty easy, requiring little more than a free image editor and Google Maps as a reference to identify the Paris Metro’s routes. When shared on Reddit, it got more than 6,000 upvotes:

Paris metro lines locations from aerial picture [OC] from r/MapPorn

The post also inspired a handful of others to apply the same technique to cities including Budapest, Milan, Cologne, and London. Among those inspired by the Paris map was Martin Bangratz, a resident of Cologne who works in urban development. Bangratz produced an aerial map of London, where he went to college.

“It’s something a lot of people know (London and the tube network) but have never seen in this way before,” Bangratz said.

Budapest metro lines on an aerial photo from r/MapPorn

These images are perhaps more pretty than useful. That’s in contrast to traditional subway maps, which focus on utility by reducing a complicated network to simple nodes and branches. The artists behind these aerial images were trying to capture new perspectives, not solve a practical problem. But they might be inadvertently giving a preview of a more practical future.

Milan metro lines locations from an aerial picture [3648x1880] from r/MapPorn

Bangratz said the aerial subway overlays could serve as a type of augmented reality, offering a new way to use digital tools to experience the urban environment. It could fit in alongside games like Pokémon Go, or other mobility products like Google’s walking directions overlay.

“I think we are going to see a lot of visualizations overlaid on real life in the near future,” Bangratz said. “For instance, I see a lot of potential in using augmented reality apps for wayfinding. Overlaying information in real time and space makes it more relevant and understandable. So it could really help to make sustainable transport decisions.”

Cologne, Germany metro lines locations from aerial picture [OC] from r/MapPorn

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