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Nate Wessel aiming to change the way Cincinnati does maps

Maps are used in our everyday lives to help us navigate our cities, perform research, and visualize spatial data, but Nate Wessel has attempted to change the way Cincinnatians view such information.

Maps are used in our everyday lives to help us navigate our cities, perform research, and visualize spatial data, but Nate Wessel has attempted to change the way Cincinnatians view such information.

In June 2011, Wessel started a modest Kickstarter campaign that would raise money to print a transit frequency map he had developed. Instead of using the typical approach to developing a bus system map, Wessel adjusted colors and line weights according to the frequency of service along each bus route.

Cincinnati Frequent Transit Map (Day Time). Image provided by Nate Wessel.

While he simplified the system map, he also added critical wayfinding information such as neighborhood business districts, parks, neighborhoods and natural landscape features.

“The maps used currently will put the 38X on the same visual level as the 17, but one runs three times a day in each direction, and the other runs almost 100 times a day in each direction,” Wessel explained. “In no way does the map indicate any more value for one over the other, but my map gives people an approximate idea of how long you’ll need to wait, in addition to how frequent the buses come and where they go.”

Wessel grew up in Northeast Ohio and said that his first experience with transit was biking a mile to an unmarked bus stop in Canton. Since then he has studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati (UC) and worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

It was during his time at UC, when he realized something needed to change with the way transit information is visually presented.

“A friend of mine from China was basically saying that he felt trapped in his apartment, and didn’t know anything beyond campus and thought you could take transit, but didn’t know where it went,” recalled Wessel. “He lived in a transit-rich area, but many people like him didn’t know the correct routes to take to the right places, even easily accessible places like downtown.”

Hamilton County property values by square foot. Image provided by Nate Wessel.

The initial Kickstarter campaign raised far more money that Wessel was anticipated, and he was able to print and distribute 30,000 copies of his Cincinnati Transit Frequency Map. The map is now also featured on Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s (SORTA) website, but beyond that has not made significant inroads with regional transportation agencies.

Six months after Wessel distributed his new map, SORTA released a new regional transit map, for which they paid $20,000, that lacked the intuitive display and added information presented on the Cincinnati Transit Frequency Map.

While both SORTA and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) were originally cooperative, and even contributed financially to the Kickstarter campaign, the follow-up, Wessel says, has been a bit disappointing.

Since the original release and distribution of the frequency map, Wessel has continued to improve upon it while also developing a separate night-time map, and one that focuses on center city transit service. To support those efforts, he launched a second Kickstarter campaign which funded the production of 20,000 additional maps in September 2012.

Wessel, however, has not limited himself solely to transit maps. He has released a number of maps this year that have highlighted property value data in Hamilton County, provided an exhaustive analysis of SORTA’s new transit plan, explained the theory of bus bunching, and is in the midst of an eight-part series critiquing the Cincinnati Streetcar project.

In the future he hopes to do a comprehensive map for bicycling to replace the existing one produced by the OKI Regional Council of Governments (OKI).

“In some way it’s a common interest in Cincinnati that I share with a lot of people that see the city not doing things as awesome as compared to other places, so I kind of want to do that with information about transit and cartography,” Wessel explained. “I also want people to make informed decisions about transit and planning in general, and I think that putting as much information out there in an attractive and useful manner helps.”

Nate Wessel was the winner of UrbanCincy’s first featured profile contest at the September 2012 URBANexchange. If you have a great idea we should know about, please contact the us at URBANexchange events are held on the first Wednesday of every month at the Moerlein Lager House.

By Randy A. Simes

Randy is an award-winning urban planner who founded UrbanCincy in May 2007. He grew up on Cincinnati’s west side in Covedale, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s nationally acclaimed School of Planning in June 2009. In addition to maintaining ownership and serving as the managing editor for UrbanCincy, Randy has worked professionally as a planning consultant throughout the United States, Korea and the Middle East. After brief stints in Atlanta and Chicago, he currently lives in the Daechi neighborhood of Seoul’s Gangnam district.