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?


Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.