I’ve started outlining a one-day, introductory GIS practicum / workshop that I hope to offer in the coming academic year. One of the primary examples I want to use in the workshop is site selection for a retail store, and I thought it would be great to use a subway layer as part of the exercise. But alas, I searched high and low for a layer late last year (for a site selection project) and couldn’t find a publicly available one. I had purchased some proprietary layers, but really don’t want to use them for this workshop because I want to be able to freely distribute all of the materials to anyone; the layer I purchased is also outdated now because the MTA cut many services (including two subway lines) last month.
But thanks to Steve Romalewski at the CUNY Mapping Service, there’s now an alternative! Steve’s work is a HUGE contribution to the GIS community in New York and fills a glaring hole in the city’s collection of freely available GIS data. The MTA does host a data feed service (based on the General Transit Feed Specification created by Google) where it provides the geography of all its transit services, among other things. Steve downloaded and processed this raw data and turned it into shapefiles. He quickly discovered that it required a fair amount of scrubbing to be usable, and he’s cleaned it up and documented the entire process in great detail in several posts on his blog (Spatiality). Links to download individual shapefiles are available at the bottom of each post, following his discussion of issues and methodology for each set of layers. The CUNY Center for Urban Research has created an index page with each post, which you can access here.
In addition, he’s created a lyr file for the subway lines in order to symbolize them correctly by color and a separate mxd file for labels. While the shapefiles represent where the lines are, there are some problems representing them as they appear cartographically on the MTA’s subway maps. Many lines, including some with different colors, share the same trunk line. For example the A and C trains (blue lines) share the same trunk with the B and D trains (orange lines) along 8th Ave from 59th St to 145th St. Depending on how you sort your symbol categories, you’ll only see one color (and line) depending on which one you have on top. Steve points out two ways for solving this issue – you can edit the geography and offset one of the lines, which is tedious and creates problems as you change scale (he has some great screen shots that depict this). If you’re using ArcGIS, he shows off some cartographic tools that you can use to offest lines by prioritizing values in the attribute table. This is more ideal, as it gives the illusion that the lines are side by side cartographically while keeping the geometry of the shapefile intact.
So if you’re using ArcGIS you’ll be good to go. I’ve downloaded the files to play around with, but as I’m at home and using QGIS I had some more work to do, since lyr and mxd files are proprietary ESRI formats that the open source packages can’t handle. I’ve assigned the appropriate colors to each subway line and saved them a QGIS style file (.qml), which you can import in the symbology window to quickly and easily get the right colors (which I plucked from the MTA’s website). I’ve also saved the RGB and hex values for each line in a text file, if you’re using some other GIS software and need to input them manually. As far as I know there isn’t an easy way to circumvent the shared-line subway problem if you’re using QGIS (see screenshot below), so you’d have your work cut out for you if you want to faithfully represent the lines the way they appear on the MTA maps. But if you’re using the layers for analysis (which is what I’ll be doing) or you don’t need to emulate “the” subway map in exact detail, it shouldn’t matter.
Footnote – for anyone who is interested, the proprietary data that I purchase for the college is from a company called Halcrow. The entire NYC transportation package costs $465. It includes NYC subways and buses (lines and stations for each, along with ridership statistics from 2008 and a historical bus stops layer from 1998), LIRR and Metro North (lines and stations), but also includes the PATH train, freight lines, and truck routes.