Data-driven transit design

New buses in the center of Moscow

Magistral, the new surface transit network, was recently launched in the Moscow city centre. Of cause there was surface transport before, but it was ineffective and uncomfortable. So the transit system reform problem was a long overdue.

This summer, the Moscow Department of Transport gathered a group of Russian and foreign experts to think about the future of the Moscow surface transpostation. Among the participants were Jarrett Walker, a well-known transit planner who worked with a number of cities around the globe, and the transportation planning company Mobility in Chain. The Urbica team had a chance to join the group and to participate in the work analysing and visualising data.

Three-day workshop for DoT Moscow. Surface transit network discussion.

The aim of the project, which was later named Magistral, was to plan a transit network inside the Garden Ring. But before the planning, the team had a lot of researching and analysing to do.

Among the data we received were massive amounts of information about:

  • Current services and their frequency and duration.
  • How many passengers get on or off at every bus stop and Metro station
  • Current speed of each type of surface transit.
  • Population density, inferred from cellphone locations in the middle of the night.
  • Density of jobs and other activities, inferred from cellphone locations in the middle of the day.
  • Locations of key destinations of interest.
  • How easy it is to walk to stops in each neighbourhood.

We created a simple and user-friendly interface that let the team experts and the Department of Transport employees explore, compare, and analyse various types of information. The data we had was of April 2016. This data had been collected by different departments, and was stored in different places and formats, so we had to decode and reorganise it.

We can analyse quite big datasets through the data exploration tool

On July 11th, the work group gathered from around the world to discuss the future of the Moscow surface transit network. For three days the experts were developing the ideas that became the basis for the Magistral project. The group, led by Jarrett Walker, worked out the vision and the concept of the future network.

The key principles were:

  • Serve the area with the fewest possible routes, so we could offer the highest possible frequency.
  • Run lines in straight and fast patterns.
  • Make it easy to transfer at points where frequent lines cross, so that people can reach more destinations quickly.

Most of the changes are already done: the routes were renamed, the frequency was heightened, and new public lines were opened, but even more changes are to come. Next year, the routes will become even simpler, and the Magistral principles will be spreading over the inner city.

Diving into the data

Like most transit planning projects, Magistral is based on the analysis of the statistics. We can’t say it’s a new approach, but in Russia there had been very few attempts to to look at the transport on a macro level, combining various data in one data tool.

When you create a simple and user-friendly interface for exploring data, structuring the data is the biggest part of the job. There is never too much data, but when you create a decision-making system you have to understand which data is most important, which data is less important, and how to present the important data without being distracted by the less important data.

The data exploration tool built especially for this project by Urbica.

The relationship between data structure and visualisation is circular. We cannot visualise data without knowing its structure; but we cannot understand the structure of data without visualising. So the process involves trial-and-error, several iterations, and a great deal of professional judgment.

The effectiveness of public transit lies in how many passengers are carried, divided by the cost of operating service. The statistics on the boardings and deboardings shows whether routes, segments, and stops are effective or not. They also show which areas may be overcrowded. We used the surface network and the subway passenger traffic statistics for every route, and we also counted transfers where possible, using ticket numbers. In the end, we had a an image of the patterns in which people are moving across the city.

Another important dataset was the population density — or, precisely, the density for various times of a day. To analyse that, we took the cell data from the mobile operators, which measures the amount of people in particular 500x500 metres at particular time of a day. The project is targeted for the city center, and the density increases by 10–12 times during the workdays in the city center; the transit network is supposed to allow that. We used data from the mobile operators to explore the demand and the density of the potential passengers.

The population density for various times of a day.

Commutes to work during the typical commute hours of 06:00–10:00 can be seen through the statistics of the entrances and the exits of the Moscow subway. We can also see all-day flows, which have a mixture of purposes.

Subway entrances and exits in varous times of a day.

We processed the boarding and deboarding statistics, frequency and speed data, passenger loads by segment, cell data — around 30 sources in all — and gathered it in one interface, which helps the transit experts to understand, what’s going on with the Moscow transport.

How to understand if the decisions are effective?

A key analytic innovation, suggested by Jarrett Walker + Associates, was to use isochrones or “access zones” to show the benefits of a network. For each place, isochrones show where you could get to, in a fixed amount of time, on public transit plus walking. We learned to calculate these for the public transit (not only for cars and walking). When the new transit network was planned, we had a chance to compare the old and the new isochrones, showing how the area people can reach quickly had improved.

As Mr. Jarrett Walker wrote in his blog:

As always when you’re trying to expand liberty and opportunity for most people, the result is fewer routes running more frequently in simpler, straighter, two-way patterns.
Iscochrone analysis tool

In the beginning of October, the new Magistral routes were launched in the city. You can find more on the project on the Moscow Mayor’s website.

We are currently observing the results analysing the first two weeks’ statistics, and working out what we can further improve in the future.

We were glad to work with such great companies as Jarrett Walker + Associates, which helps governments improve and explain their public transit services; the transport-planning firm Mobility in Chain, Moscow Department of Transport and others.


Jarrett Walker + associates — JWA is built on decades of expertise in designing public transit networks. JWA’s network design and planning work ranges from short-range, implementation-ready service plans to long-term vision documents. Working collaboratively with clients and their stakeholders, we develop plans that reflect both community values and technical facts, and that build an agency’s capacity to have clearer conversations in the future.

Mobility in Chain — MIC is a transport-planning firm based in Milan, Moscow and New York. The firm operates on an international level with works spanning from the States to Europe and China, and from Russia to Turkey and Africa.

Urbica Design practice in information design, user interfaces and data analysis. We are focused on human experience design around cities. We will be happy to help organisations to develop processes, products, services, tools and environments with a focus based on the data & design.

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