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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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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How can cities build a better bike culture? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.