Subway Reads

200+ books over NYC transit Wi-Fi

‹ All Work

Design in transit

If you’re on the New York City subway and you want to see our work, follow one easy step: Connect to TransitWirelessWiFi.

ATTCK partnered with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Literacy Partners to produce Subway Reads, an annual campaign that many New Yorkers already know well.

Now in its third year, Subway Reads offers free reading material aplenty to all commuters with a Wi-Fi connection. The selections, drawn from over 200 books, include everything from poems by Walt Whitman to short stories by Flannery O’Connor. Book excerpts run the gamut from Patti Smith’s memoir and recipes by Joanna Gaines to I Am Malala and Notorious RBG.

Preparing for the trip

Subway Reads does much more than help riders pass time on the train. It publicizes and raises funds for Literacy Partners, a nonprofit whose mission is to make reading and literature accessible to all.

When they’re not busy gathering reproduction rights from over a dozen publishers, Literacy Partners offers free literacy classes to low-income and immigrant parents. It then encourages reading across generations by providing parents with a home library of 15 age-appropriate books for each of their children.

Now the MTA and its riders are benefiting from a wealth of things to read, and Literacy Partners is benefiting from the donation link on the Subway Reads website. Everyone wins.

Sounds simple. But it took a lot of work.

An initial hurdle arose when our project—initially to design and build a highly optimized website—expanded to include importing and cleaning text from various publishing houses. One publisher sent us a .zip file with Word documents that weren’t HTML-friendly. Another provided us with HTML markup, but it wasn’t well formatted.

The solution: to “scrub” each of the files and create optimized HTML markup for each text. We were happy to get our hands dirty.

Avoiding unexpected delays

Content aside, what’s the first thing you need when you’re building a website to meet the needs of a bustling metro system? Speed, and lots of it.

Anyone who’s used New York City’s subway knows that the stations provide ample Wi-Fi. The tunnels between the stations don’t.

In order to prevent any interruptions in commuters’ reading experience, the Subway Reads site needed to load nearly immediately upon connection. That required us to modify WordPress in a way that heavily compressed images and produced a highly optimized and pared-down set of HTML markup. To ensure minimal third-party script, we used almost no JavaScript frameworks.

Illustration by ATTCK for content optimization.
WordPress logo. ATTCK partnership

Partnering with WP Engine

Of course, you can build a site to be really small, but you need the right server to make it fast. WP Engine, a dedicated web host, provided us with a high-availability enterprise hosting solution and an interface that allowed us to manage multiple domains with one-click deployments. They went above and beyond to connect us with the right people and to offer server configurations to meet our project’s needs.

Once we paired our highly optimized code base with a high-availability server, the result was a perfect 100 score on Google’s benchmark PageSpeed Insights test. We tested on another platform, GTmetrix, and once again scored a perfect 100.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority told us they’d never seen a perfect 100 before. To say they were happy is an understatement.

Rush hour

To further ensure a smooth user experience, the Subway Reads website and the texts themselves needed to do more than load quickly. They needed to stay put.

Using technologies like local storage and a cache manifest—just a couple of the different JavaScript and web browser technologies used for this purpose—we produced a progressive web app, or PWA, that loads nearly immediately and downloads itself to users’ devices. Once downloaded, the app can be accessed offline and still maintain functionality.

Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

Illustration by ATTCK. Subway train between stations with Subway Reads
Illustration by ATTCK of Google Analytics

Making a good connection

To fulfill a last-minute request, we independently load-tested the site to ensure support for up to a million users, with 50,000 of them concurrent at any given time. Concurrent user tests require a highly sophisticated form of virtualization across the network of cloud devices, with an internal reporting structure to record distinct benchmarks in page load time, time to render, and so on. We found a load-testing provider and, in one weekend, ensured that we could meet the demands of New York City’s subway ridership.


When Literacy Partners had to create a compelling, stylish, on-brand, fast-loading site for a reading promotion campaign to be done in partnership with the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority, [subway Wi-Fi provider] Transit Wireless, and 13 of the city’s leading publishers, in a matter of two to three weeks, we turned to ATTCK. ATTCK ‘attacked’ this project with vigor, turned it around on time, fluently and delicately dealt with challenging stakeholders with competing needs and demands, and created an engaging, fast-loading, and easily adaptable site that is getting upwards of 4,000 hits a day.

Emily Harting
Literacy Partners
Gary Gertz
Sarah Quigley Dennis Plucinik
Masahiro Naruse Karen Chow