A map of maps

The map of maps.

Over on my website Chicago Cityscape I’ve assembled a map of maps: There are 20,432 maps in 36 layers. You might say there are 36 maps, and each of those maps has an arbitrary number of boundaries within. I say there are 20,000+ maps because there’s a unique webpage for each of them that can tell you even more information about that map.

This post is to throw out some analysis of these maps, in addition to the simple counts above.

The data comes from the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the U.S. Census Bureau. Some layers have come from bespoke sources, including the entrances of CTA and Metra stations drawn by Yonah Freemark and me for Transit Explorer. The sections of the Chicago River were divided and sliced by the Metropolitan Planning Council. The neighborhood and business organizations layers were drawn by me, by interpreting textual descriptions of the organizations’ boundaries, or by visually copying an organization’s own map.

There are 6,879 unique words longer than 2 characters, in the metadata of this map of maps. The most common word is “annexation”, which makes sense, given that the layer with the most maps shows the 10,668 Cook County annexation actions since 1830 – the first known plat was incorporated in the City of Chicago.

The GeoJSON file, an open source, human readable GIS format, comes out to 30 MB, and it make break your browser when you try to display this layer.

The next group of words are also generic, like “planned” and “development”, related to the Planned Development kind of zoning process in Chicago – called Planned Unit Development in other jurisdictions.

After that, some names of municipalities that traded back and forth between unincorporated Cook County and incorporated municipalities are on the list.

Working down the list, however, it gets really boring and I’m going to stop. I bet if you’re a smarter data science person you can find more interesting patterns in the words, but I’ve also increased the number of generic words (like planned development) by adding these as keywords to each map’s “full text search” index, to ensure that they would respond to a variety of search phrases from users.

Designing a new static map style for Chicago Cityscape

I redesigned the static maps that are shown on Chicago Cityscape’s Place pages to tone down their harsh hues, and change what data (which comes from OpenStreetMap) is shown.

All 2,800 maps are automatically generated using a program called MOATP (“Map of all the places”) which is based on Neil Freeman’s svgis program. Both programs are open source.

The map now shows all roads; it was awkward to see so many empty spaces between buildings. Secondary* and residential roads are shown with slightly less thickness than primary and motorway roads. Also included are multi-use trails in parks.

Parks and grass are shown in different hues of green, although I don’t think it’s distinctive enough to know there’s a difference. Cemeteries remain a darker green.

I’ve changed the building color to soften the harsh brown. Only named buildings and schools appear, which is why you see a lot of gaps. Most buildings outside downtown aren’t named.

Retail areas have been added in a soft, salmon and tan-like color to show where “activity” areas in each Place.

I’ll be uploading the new maps soon.

* These road categories come from the OpenStreetMap “highway” tag.

Chicago’s ward boundaries should go down alleys instead of main streets

Dividing a small part of a business district, centered on one street, into three fiefdoms cannot be an efficient way to govern a neighborhood, aggregate resources, or provide services.

This graphic illustrates how many elected “stakeholders” – each with their own ideas – a city transportation department and its contracted engineers have to deal with to repave a street and rebuild the sidewalks.

The constituents are the same, however. They are all small business owners, and if you want to get together and advocate for change, you’ll have to make three different appointments.

Say the first elected official supports your small group’s proposal. Are they going to talk to the next door elected official and collaborate?

Naw. Not in Chicago. This is the city where a bike lane will be repaired on a street, but only up to the point where the fiefdom boundary ends, because the next official didn’t want to pay for the maintenance on their side.

I can see one situation where having three boundaries is good: Say one of the official is really good, responsive to needs, pushes for street upgrades, spends their discretionary funds in ways that you like, and attracts more businesses to locate there.

The next door official, however, isn’t as responsive or “good”, but they want those businesses to locate on their side of the street. They’ll become better, in essence, competing.

I don’t think this happens in Chicago, because you’ll tend to have officials who are about the same.

The depicted project was proposed a little over four years ago, and is now complete, it appears.

This map shows how transit access from Uptown would diminish if the Red Line wasn’t there

The dark pink shows areas you can get to within 45 minutes by transit, and the light pink shows you how far you can get within 60 minutes of transit. The transit shed without the Red Line is much smaller!

I virtually dismantled the Red Line to show how important it is to get around the North Side via transit.

Mapzen, a fantastic company that makes free and open source mapping tools, and for whom I’m an independent contractor, updated its Mobility Explorer map to show where you can go from any point in a city by transit if a piece of existing transit infrastructure didn’t exist.

So, I handily took out the Red Line – the Chicago workhorse, carrying 145,000 people each weekday north of State/Lake station. The map shows the analysis, called an isochrone, as if you were departing from the Wilson station in Uptown.

Try it yourself.

You can download the map as a GeoJSON, open it in QGIS, and measure the area in square miles that each scenario covers.

At least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages

Here’s how I know that at least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages, as of February 5, 2017.

That’s a lot of polluted water runoff.

I grabbed the land area of 227.3 from the Wikipedia page.

I grabbed all the parking lots from OpenStreetMap via Metro Extracts, which is going to be the most complete map of parking lots and garages.

Volunteer mappers, including me, drew these by tracing satellite imagery.

With the parking lots data in GIS, I can count their area in square feet, which comes out to 160,075,942.42. Convert that to square miles and you get 5.74.

5.74/227.3*100 = 2.5 percent

The last snapshot of parking lot data I have is from February 2016, when only 3.39 square miles of parking lots have been drawn.

There are still many more parking lots to be drawn!

Bicyclists in Chicago can travel pretty far in 15 minutes

Mapzen* released Mobility Explorer last week. It is the graphical user interface (GUI) to the Transitland datastore of a lot of the world’s transit schedules and maps.

It also has isochrones, which are more commonly known as “mode sheds”, or the area that you can reach by a specific mode in a specific amount of time.

I wanted to test it quickly to see what these mode sheds say about where I live, a block north of Humboldt Park. From my house, on a bicycle, I can reach the edges of an area that’s 25 square miles in 15 minutes.

Isochrones map of transportation distance from my house

The distance you can travel from my house at the north end of Humboldt Park in 15 minutes by three modes, assuming you leave at 2:21 PM today (in increasing distance/area): Transit (dark purple) Bicycling (burgundy) Driving (pink)

You can request these isochrones through this API call for any location and they’ll be returned as GeoJSON.

I’m still learning how isochrones work, and how they can be adjusted (to account for different rider seeds and route costs or penalties). One difference between bicycling and driving is that the driving area is increased by expressways while the bicycling area has a more uniform shape.

The bike shed is 25.7 square miles, and the driving shed is 52.0 square miles.

*I do contract work for Mapzen and maintain parts of the Transitland Feed Registry.

Big Marsh Bike Park is the coolest new city park

Big Marsh Bike Park opening day from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

Rahm Emanuel has opened a lot of cool new parks – Maggie Daley, Northerly Island, 606, and Grant Park Skate Park – since he became mayor. (Making arguments that the parking lot south of Soldier Field can’t be anything but a parking lot pretty lame.)

This morning Emanuel cut the ribbon on the Big Marsh Bike Park, first announced in July 2014. It’s still known as Park 564, until the Chicago Park District board adopts a new name.

It’s located at 11599 S. Stony Island Ave. in the South Deering community area in an area already known as Big Marsh. I mapped the park into OpenStreetMap based on a map from the architect, Hitchcock Design Group*.

I've traced an architect's map of the park into OpenStreetMap.

I’ve traced an architect’s map of the park into OpenStreetMap.

The single-track trails, terrain park, and pump track, are free and open to the public every day from dawn until dusk. It resembles the Valmont Bike Park in Boulder Colorado, which I visited in 2014.

Big Marsh was listed in the city’s Habitat Directory in 2005, noting, “Big Marsh is the largest individual wetland in the Calumet Open Space Reserve with approximately 90 acres of open water. Hiking and biking trails and canoe launch are ideas for this area in the future. As of this writing, the site is undeveloped.”

A map of the Big Marsh wetland in 2005 in the City of Chicago's Habitat Directory.

A map of the Big Marsh wetland in 2005 in the City of Chicago’s Habitat Directory. The bike park is mainly in the cleared space east of the #2 on the map.

The area is also part of the the State of Illinois’s Millennium Reserve program, a group of projects to restore natural areas, create new economic development opportunities in the area, and build more recreational sites.

There is no bike infrastructure to access the site, and many roads leading to the site are in bad condition, or have high-speed car traffic. There is a large car parking lot at the site.

* If you would like to help me map the bike park into OpenStreetMap, you can load the architect’s map of the site into JOSM using this WMS tile layer.

Panorama of the bike park, and the landfill to its south

A rider on the terrain park small trail

Oh, how Chicago land use is controlled by spot zoning

If you only had a zoning map to try and understand how the different blocks in the City of Chicago relate to their neighborhoods and the city at large, you might have the idea that the city has no neighborhoods, but is actually a collection of tiny, randomly dispersed zones of differing land uses.

And then when you walked those areas you’d find that the zones, which attempt to prescribe a land use, at least nominally, don’t have anything to do with the restaurant, housing, and commercial building mix of uses actually present.

No plan would have been devised to create a map like this.

Over the last five years, and surely over the last 14, the City of Chicago has been divided (really, split) into an increasing number of distinct zoning districts.

The city’s zoning map is updated after each monthly city council meeting, to reflect the numerous changes that the 50 alders have approved individually. (Their collective approval occurs unanimously in an omnibus bill.)

Every few months I ask the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) for the latest zoning map, in the form of a shapefile (a kind of file that holds geographic information that can be analyzed by many computer programs). While Chicago has one of the country’s best open data offerings, some datasets, like zoning, don’t get updated in the catalog.

There are two ways I can analyze and present the data about the quantity of zoning districts. Both, however, show that the number of distinct zoning districts has increased. This means that the city is divided even more finely than it was just six months ago.

Analysis 1: Period snapshots

I have the zoning shapefile for five periods, snapshots of the city’s zoning map at that time. From August 2012 to now, May 2016, the number of discrete zoning districts (the sum of all B3-5, RS-1, DX-7, etc. zoning classes) has increased 7.8 percent.

Period Zoning districts change

August 2012


September 2014



June 2015



November 2015



May 2016



I collect the period snapshots to show the history of zoning at a specific address or building in Chicago, which is listed on Chicago Cityscape. For example, the zoning for the site of the new mixed-use development in Bucktown that includes a reconstructed Aldi has changed four times in four years.

aldi zoning history

Analysis 2: Creation date

The zoning shapefiles also have the date at which a zoning district was split or combined to create a new district, either with a different zoning class (RT-4, C1-1, etc.) or a different shape.

With the most recent zoning shapefile I can tell how many new zoning districts were split or combined and a record representing it was added to the list. The records start in 2002, and by the end of the year 7,717 records were created.

The following year, only 14 records were added, and in 2004, only 6. The Chicago City Council adopted a rewritten zoning code in 2004, and I guess that the zoning map was modified prior to adoption. After 2004, the number of new zoning districts picks up:

year zoning districts added by splitting/combining cumulative change




























































none listed



It seems there’s a light relationship between the recession that started in 2008 and the number of zoning changes made. There are more made annually before the recession than after it. It actually seems to track with building permits (sorry, no chart handy).

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.

What should this area in Chicago be called?

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

Currently it’s called the South Loop, which is a neighborhood name. It’s in the “Near West Side” community area. See how the City of Chicago mapped the “South Loop” in the past when it used to keep track of neighborhood boundaries.

I think it should have a new name. It should not be called the South Loop because the commonly identified center of the South Loop is probably somewhere between Roosevelt and Harrison, and Michigan Avenue and State Street, very far from this area. It just might be the Roosevelt CTA station, which has over 12,000 boardings a day.

Saying that you’re going to some business that’s west of the river and saying that the business is in the South Loop would confuse a lot of people as to what its nearby.

It’s more of an industrial and commercial area that gained a lot of new big box (faceless) retail in the 2000s, so very few people live there. There are several stores that exist that came decades before the big box outlets; for fabric, clothing, shoes, and suits. It’s probably these independent store owners that can point to an older neighborhood name as they were the center of consumer commerce in this area.

It’s easy to give it a new name. Most of the housing is north of Harrison Street. It’s difficult to figure out how many people live here because the block groups for this area include more than the area in question.

It’s easy to argue that because of the land uses, it really has no current identifiable “place” or pattern that attracts people. I’d like to know more about its history and, South Loop being a modern name, its previous names.

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