New Yorkers frustrated by the high fares, cramped commutes, and long walking distances to the nearest stop have long loved indulging in the city-wide pastime of playing armchair design critic to the MTA. But is it possible to design a more efficient New York subway system? Like SimCity for subways, Brand New Subway is a new web game that lets you give it a shot—and it just might give you a newfound appreciation for the efficiency of the MTA.
Based upon an accurate map of New York City, the goal of Brand New Subway is to design your own subway line. You do so by putting icons representing existing MTA lines onto the map, with the computer automatically connecting stations into lines by calculating the optimal path between them. Crossovers can also be manually assigned, so that multiple lines form a citywide network.
Where things get interesting is that when you drop a station on the map, Brand New Subway automatically pulls in local data from a variety of sources, including information about population, jobs, transportation demand, taxes, and so on. It then calculates how successful your subway is based on a couple of metrics: how many people it can move on an average weekday, and the cost of a single-ride MetroCard for the network.
It turns out that it's actually very easy to design a subway network with a relatively low MetroCard price, but that can't actually move many people. Likewise, it's surprisingly simple to build a network that moves tens of millions, if your system charges $6 or more per ride—a price that is inflated by factors such as the price of building a station in a certain neighborhood, the difficulty of constructing tunnels, staffing requirements, and more.
Just like in the real world, building a great subway system is a balancing act between cost and network volume. Brand New Subway makes it easy to see how well your subway achieves this balancing act with handy letter grades, ranging from A+ to F.
So how does the real-life New York Subway rank, when graded within Brand New Subway?
Sorry, public transit belly-achers: It turns out that the MTA is actually doing a pretty bang-up job. As the NYC subway stands today, it gets a B grade from Brand New Subway, thanks to its ability to move an average of 5.65 million people per weekday on a $2.75 single-ride MetroCard fare. And while the upcoming closure of the L train will almost certainly be a nightmare, the good news is that once it's done, the MTA will be in even better shape. By 2025, Brand New Subway projects that NYC will be able to move 6.13 million people per weekday, on average, on a $2.76 single-ride MetroCard fare, earning the whole network an A-.
Brand New Subway was created for the Power Broker Game Design competition, a contest that asks designers for the best playable, interactive app based on the themes of Robert Caro's biography of NYC's legendary urban city planner Robert Moses. Moses, of course, did not design the MTA. In fact, he was a rather famous opponent of public transit, having built as many as 13 expressways across New York City. But in the sense that Brand New Subway shows the ramifications that transit design can have on neighborhoods, the app's focus on subways makes sense.
The designer, Jason Wright, says that he hopes the game will bring attention to the issue of bottoms-up vs. top-down design, by targeting players who actually ride the subway every day—and show them how they could improve the network in their own neighborhoods.