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

Whatever could it mean? Read on to find out! Image: World Bank.

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.

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.

Click to expand.

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.

Click to expand.

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.

Click to expand.

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.


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.

Like this sort of thing, do you? Why not like us on Facebook?


Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?


You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.


Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?



Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.


I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook