1. Transport
December 14, 2015

It's Christmas, so here are 11 beautiful isochrone maps showing travel times at different points in history

By Ed Hickey

Three words dominate CityMetric’s big “Things We Like to Write About” list: “maps”, “transport” and “history”. So, since it’s Christmas, we thought we’d spoil you by providing all three.

Isochrone maps plot the time it takes to travel from a specific starting location to anywhere else on the map. These beautiful historical examples capture the days in which travel was a serious endeavour: how many of us would be so keen get some winter sun in the southern hemisphere if it meant several weeks at sea?

New York, 1800-1930

A couple of centuries ago, your average New Yorker considered the American frontier a distant dream. Fifty years later they could travel to the Californian coast in just under one month.

By 1930 it could be done within a day. Today, a flight from New York to Los Angeles will take you just over six hours. Amazing things, aeroplanes.

Click to expand.

This collection comes from the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, printed in 1932. As a bonus, the good people at the University of Richmond have created an interactive map where you can plot any point in the eastern States to find out their 1800 travel time from NYC.

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Image courtesy of Mapping the Nation.

London, 1881

According to this map, created for the Royal Geographical Society by Francis Galton in 1881, your average British explorer could set out from London and reach the North African coast within 10 days.

Click to expand.

But getting to the centre of the continent could still take you four times that. Travelling to Australia or China was a similarly epic ordeal.

Image: Royal Geographical Society.

London, 1906

This map shows from 1906 shows little reduction in travel times from 25 years earlier (it’s pretty, though, so we included it anyway). Things would change rapidly over the coming decades, thanks to the rise of air travel.

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This map comes from the rather brilliant Atlas of the World’s Commerce, created by John G Bartholemew and published in 1907. You can see the whole book in full at the David Rumsey Map Collection – it is chock full of beautiful graphs and maps, so definitely worth a look.

Image: David Rumsey Map Collection.

Manchester, 1914

Transport technology has also shortened domestic travel. A hundred years ago, it would have taken you an hour to get from Manchester city centre to Ashton Under Lyne. Today the journey takes just 15 minutes.

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Information about this map is hard to come by, but we do know that it appears to have been put into the public domain courtesy of the Manchester Archives.

Image courtesy of the Manchester Archives.

Melbourne, 1922 & 1926

Back in the 1920s, catching a train from Melbourne and travelling for an hour would have taken you about 15 miles. Today, you can drive three times further that in same time. And flights to Sydney take just an hour and a half.

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These two maps were created by the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission, a body set up by the government of the State of Victoria to research and implement Melbourne’s first ever development strategy. These two maps represent journey times taken on both standard and electric railways as of 1926; they informed the Commission’s final plans, which launched three years later.

Click to expand.

You can buy full scale prints of both these maps here.

Images: cambooth.net

Travel times to major cities: a global map of Accessibility, 2009

And for good measure here is a contemporary isochronic map, courtesy of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2009, Reshaping Economic Geography. This one doesn’t have a fixed starting point, but instead represents every point on the globe by travel time to the nearest urban centre.


Click to expand.

Cities of at least 50,000 people are represented as bright yellow, and as the travel time away from them increases, the colour changes to red (24 hours from a major city) and then black (10 days). The blue lines represent major shipping routes.

Incredibly, 90 per cent of the entire surface of the planet is now within reach of a large city within 48 hours, according to the report. How things have changed.

Image: World Bank.

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