Guest Post … European Bus Maps: the State of the Art

Jug Cerovic is an Architect and Mapmaker. He leads the consultancy and workshop INAT Maps & Cityscape (

The notion that Europe has superb public transit does not always extend to the quality of public transit maps.  In fact, the struggle to improve transit maps is not much more advanced in Europe than it is in North America.  I have studied more than 250 European cities and their bus maps, and have also designed a few.  Here are some observations about the state of the practice.

All transit maps fall within two main categories: geographic maps that show the real scale and distances, and schematic maps that help you see the network structure. Some cities use geographic maps, some use schematic maps and some use both of them. The choice is up to each particular city, there is no national preference or link with population size or urban shape. Some tendencies appear though; in the South of Europe (Italy, Spain), geographic maps are predominant while Scandinavian countries and Switzerland prefer schematics. French and German cities tend to employ both.

Transit maps, both schematic and geographic, can be grouped into 3 distinct categories, depending on the primary meaning of color.

  • Color for technology.  These maps use one color for trams, another for buses, etc.
  • Color for lines.  Color is used to help you trace different lines through the network.
  • Color for frequency.  Color helps you identify high-frequency services, so that they stand out amid the complexity of less frequent services.


These maps assign a limited number of colors to each transport subsystem (bus, tram, metro) and do not separate single lines one from another.

With this kind of map, you can tell which street is used by public transport and which is not, as well as where the stops are located. It shows the space occupied by the network inside the urban territory but doesn’t tell the traveler how the network functions. With such a map it is difficult to plan even the simplest journey as you need to search for consecutive line numbers along a route. Complex journeys with transfers are next to impossible to plan.

Surprisingly enough, a lot of cities publish such useless maps, failing to inform the users about the real potential of the network.

I can only speculate as to why they do so. Perhaps they just do not care, and showing that the network exists and covers the entire territory is enough politically. Maybe they fear that showing the exact state of the network will reveal inconsistencies and provoke resentment or demands from citizen. Or, it may simply be that they consider the network to be too complex to be shown otherwise!

monochromatic: london and rome

Color-for-technology in a geographic map: London and Rome


Color-for-technology in a schematic map: Copenhagen and Munich


These maps show assign each line a particular color. You can therefore easily follow a line’s route from end to end, without any ambiguity or confusion. Seeing each line separately enables a traveler to visualize complex journeys with several transfers or modal changes. Instead of sticking to the one line you know best, you can plan an onward journey different from the backward one. Unlike monochrome maps, a multicolored bus map doesn’t show a territory occupied by public transport but a network of lines and their stations with all its details and potential journeys.

It works even with very complex and dense networks such as Paris even though the legibility hits a limit in some very crowded areas where more than 10 lines share the same street segment.

A major weakness of a standard multicolored map is the egalitarian representation of all lines which can be misleading when they differ substantially in frequency.  If you are on a line that runs every 30 minutes but there’s a useful line nearby that’s every 5 minutes, you’d never know from these maps.


Color-for-line in a geographic map: Paris and Antwerp


Color-for-line in a schematic map: Brussels and Zurich

Frequency Maps

The problems of the previous two styles of map are addressed by frequency mapping, which this blog has advocated for many years.

Not only does it single out lines and show the network, but it also assigns to each line a frequency marker, usually a difference in width or color, which instantly differentiates lines with frequent service from lines with less frequent service. This makes it possible avoid long waiting times. These new maps seem to illustrate a change of perception of the network, both by the operators and by the users. A general shift in working time and communication access has transformed the simple commute to work into a much more complex web of journeys. A frequency map is an information tool that enables such a complex travel pattern and also serves as a communication medium between the operator and its users.  It can also assist people in choosing places to live so that they will have access to good transit.

As of today, European frequent maps are found in only 5 clusters in Europe: Slovakia, Scotland, France, Germany and Benelux.

Slovakia: Bratislava, Kosice

Slovakian maps indicate a difference between Main lines and Secondary lines, with a difference in thickness and color. One can guess that Main lines are more frequent or faster than secondary lines but the legend doesn’t state it clearly.


Main lines map: Bratislava

United Kingdom: Edinburgh, Glasgow

In Scotland you can find some real frequency maps where lines are strictly classified as frequent or less frequent. Unfortunately both the Glasgow and Edinburgh maps suffer from 2 limitations: the bus stops are not indicated and the city center is shown only on a separate inset, leaving the most important part of the network blank on the map.


Frequency map: Edinburgh

France: Amiens, Bordeaux, Dijon, Grenoble, Lyon, Metz, Orléans, Reims, Toulon

France has enthusiastically embraced frequency maps, with numerous examples of both the geographic and schematic types. Most cities even publish maps of both types. The maps are comprehensive, with all necessary information about stops, routes and line types, sometimes even a bit too much, overwhelming the user with information.


Frequency geographic: Orléans


Frequency schematic: Orléans

Germany: Aachen, Braunschweig, Chemnitz, Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Onasbruck, Rostock

One of the best European Frequency maps is in Leipzig. Lines are singled out, a color is attributed to each of them and frequency is shown with a difference in width. But most of all, lines and colors are organized in a way that shows how the system really functions. The layout is focused on the centrally located circular loop surrounding the old town and all lines serving this area are color coded according to their common routes. This makes the network intuitive and unambiguous for the map reader.


Frequency map: Leipzig

Benelux: Luxembourg, Utrecht

Here, I must inform the reader that I am the designer of the new official maps of Luxembourg and Utrecht. These are frequency maps in full, with additional improvements in line grouping, symbolism and combined scales. Here in the thinking that led to these designs.

Line grouping

When two or more less-frequent lines share a long common route and when their timetables are synchronized, their frequencies add up and this common trunk route effectively becomes a single high frequency line. These lines are grouped on the map and assigned the same color; the trunk part is a thick line with thinner branches at each end. Lines are also color-coded and grouped according to their functions.

In Luxembourg, on the central corridor where more than 15 lines share the same street, lines are grouped by directions, forming only 5 thick trunk lines thus simplifying readability.

In Utrecht bus lines are grouped in 5 categories for legibility (terminal in the center, thru lines, university, tangent, local) and other transport modes have their own color (train, tramway). Line grouping is a way to simplify the network and intuitively convey its organization to the traveler.


Symbolic elements are highlighted in order to ease orientation and conform the map to the mental image of the city people may have.

In Luxembourg, the old fortress town, placed in the center of the map, is roughly pentagonal in shape and commands the angles at which avenues radiate from it. All line segments on the map are multiples of 18° as it allows for both orthogonal (18° x 5 = 90°) and pentagonal based (72°) axis.

In Utrecht the main landscape marker, apart from the old town, is the rail line cutting through the city at a roughly 60° angle. A 30°- 60°- 90° angle pattern  fits the street grid and overall layout marvelously.

Combined Scales

In both cities the network is very dense in the city center and sparser in the periphery. The city center is also the area where most pedestrian connections between lines are located. The map has to show two very different scales: the city center where walking distance is important, and the periphery which has fewer connections and can be simplified and distorted. Therefore on both maps the city center is enlarged and geographically accurate, streets and remarkable buildings foster orientation and enable pedestrian connections, while the periphery is shrunk and schematized while remaining topologically accurate.


Frequency map: Luxembourg


Frequency map: Utrecht

As these examples show us, European bus maps are witnessing an exciting new era of creativity and bus networks will benefit hugely from this improvement in representation, with maps that allow them to be perceived as comprehensive transport networks in their own right and not mere collections of independent lines.

12 Responses to Guest Post … European Bus Maps: the State of the Art

  1. Richard Mann November 1, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    Line grouping by central route; geographic; dash pattern for frequency

  2. Pete B November 1, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    Thamesdown Transport (the municipal operator serving the borough of Swindon) in England is a geographic, colour for line map with frequency shown on a table.

  3. David Arthur November 1, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

    A number of Swedish cities sort of combine approaches 2 and 3: each line is a different colour, making for easy legibility, and it’s simply assumed that they’re all frequent. If there are minor lines that don’t meet this standard, they’re sometimes marked in grey to make the distinction clear.

  4. H. Wilker November 1, 2016 at 11:53 pm #

    I hope you mean “Osnabrück” in that cluster of frequency-mapped cities: website

    • el_slapper November 2, 2016 at 3:30 am #

      Thanks for this Osnabrücker example. The line 11 shows clearly that pattern, at the station “Schinkel Ost” : it’s thinner to the East than to the west. That and the “Schinkel Ost” stop being highlighted : everyone understands that the line 11 partially stops here, and frequency is smaller beyond(to the East, in that case).

      I do find this map extremely impressive. Good job.

  5. Andrew November 2, 2016 at 6:16 am #

    I have also studied many European bus maps, although not 250. I think this is a very great post, however I think there one important thing to add regarding the existing “frequency maps”:

    Many of the seemingly “frequent” routes are not frequent at all!

    Most of the “frequency maps” mentioned here does not state the minimum frequency of the main route. However, even those if they do, they are very often wrong!

    Here is some examples:

    Malmö, Sweden:
    All the thick, colored, lines goes every 10 minutes or better during weekdays, and every 15 minutes or better during weekends, but what you cannot tell from the map is that the outer parts of the routes are much less frequent, some of them only have a bus every 30 minutes.

    Bordeaux, France:
    You may think that the blue lines the “Lianes (lignes structurantes avec un bus toutes les 10 à 15 minutes)” are frequent routes, every 10-15 minutes. No, they are not. One of them, route 6, only goes every 20 minutes, and like the Malmö map, many of them have infrequent parts at the outer parts of the routes. Route 2 is the worst of them all, it goes no more often than every 60 minutes at the westernmost part!

    Copenhagen area, Denmark:
    What is “A-bus” and “S-bus”? Are they frequent? How should you know? Well, a bit of research tell us that the “A-bus” routes are frequent, but the “S-bus” routes are infrequent express routes. Still, the same problem as usual. It is impossible to tell from the map that some parts of the A-bus routes can be as infrequent as 30 minutes.

    Stockholm, Sweden:
    The maps at the english language site does not work, but it does not matter, since the maps themselves are not in english. First, we look at the central Stockholm map (the “Stockholms innerstad”, uppermost of all. What does “Blåbuss” mean? They seems to have numbers 1-4, and they are all colored blue. Are they frequent? Well, in Swedish, “Blåbuss” means nothing more than “Blue bus”!. But a look at the timetables tell us that the routes 1-4 are very frequent.

    Ok, so let’s have a look at some of the other maps below, the “Norrtälje” map for example. Here you see two “Blue” bus lines, the 676/676X and the 677. The timetable for the 676/676X tells us that it goes every 15 minutes all days of the week. But the 677 goes only every 60 minutes most of the day, not frequent at all!

  6. RichardB November 3, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    I agree the colour for technology map used in London has many drawbacks but given the volume of bus routes in zone 1 (the centre), the size of the city and the fact they are almost exclusively frequent I am not sure how you proceed. The so called spider maps which use a schematic approach are much better and have probably boosted bus use since their introduction but I remain to be convinced that you could develop a comprehensive bus map for the whole of London. We have close to 600 bus routes operating in London of which just under 60 are night bus routes. At the fringes of the outer suburbs the approach favoured by the author would work but I can’t see this working well for the whole of London. Indeed even the current unsatisfactory maps only show a fraction of the geographic area such as centre, south west etc. The Lomdon street layout does not help either as it is not based on a formal grid. Has anyone seen a more usable map for the whole of London? Incidentally Transport for London (TfL) does offer a simple map guide for tourists and visitors for the innermost area (I.e. A fraction of zone 1) but deliberately leaves out a lot of routes as the map would be too busy. I have attached a link below but do bear in mind that all these routes are very frequent in some cases every four minutes.

  7. Leo November 4, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

    Prague used to use a frequent transit map for its bus and metro system map, with “Metrobus” routes being shown in purple and described as “main” routes (almost all have 15 minutes or better headways each day of the week). Now, all routes are shown in blue, like “standard” routes used to be shown, except regional routes which are still shown in green. However, Metrobus routes still have purple route markers for tracing that line’s path through the city. The tram and metro map used to show “arterial” tram routes (12 minute or better headways) differently from “standard” (15 minute or better headways) and “weekday/special” (15-20 minute headways on weekdays only). However, they have since adopted a new tram and metro map without these distinctions, showing “arterial” and “standard” routes the same, and “weekday” routes get only a footnote explaining their non-standard service.

  8. Halmar December 8, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    A very nice post on mapping PT networks!

    The use of colour for directions in Utrecht is special and very interesting too. Utrecht already had a name for colouring its destination on the busses.
    This graphical maps offer a good view for connections and structure, but lacks easy local recognition of which lines run in your neighbourhood. Being a visitor to the area, I use the Utrecht map often, and I think its usuable, although I’m not completely convinced of its qualities yet.

    Larger networks have often many lines and of different modes (rail, water, road). The modes are clearly identified and distinguished by our passengers. By using lots of colours, styles and thicknes of lines reading a map would be quite difficult, when all those lines gather at central hubs. Some clustering is essential for easy reading if you want to show all information.

    Rotterdam (Netherlands, EU) has a extensive network of bus, tram, metro and heavy rail lines. At the busiest hub we have around 40 lines toogether! Therefor we chose for a technical solution on presenting all PT offered, but didn’t forget frequency…

    Being the first in the Benelux (but unfortunately forgotten to mention in the article) RET in Rotterdam launched in 2008 already a map that showed the frequent lines in a network map. Frequent means here “6/4/2”: every 10 minutes (or better) in rush hour, every 15 (or better) in the day/saturday, every 30 (or better) in the evening/sunday. For Rotterdam these are all 5 metro and all 12 tram lines, and some 20 bus lines.

    The “frequent network” is offered as a graphical map, for fast travelling and easy interchanges between lines, showing only frequentlines. National rail and HTM RandstadRail (beyond our authority) are added for alternative travel, and marked grey here. Note that due of lacking space, not all busstops are mentioned.

    But we also have a map of the whole PT network in the Rotterdam Area, in which the frequent lines are good visible.

    The complete RET map shows the frequent metro in their own linecolours+M logo, the frequent tramlines in yellow, frequent buslines in same thick red line (both city and regional busses), low frequent busses in a smaller blue line and the special (price or request) minibusses in smaller green line. Heavy rail is shown in black and white. All PT lines of all companies are shown, except night routes; they have a special map. No distinction in colour or style is made for the different public transit companies.

    Importance is also the usebility of stops. Black stops being non-wheelchair accessible, white/yellow being accessible. Metro is always accessible.

    Being an extrensive network we show in all sheltered stops and stations only the ‘frequent map’ and just a dedicaded part of the full Rotterdam map (roughly 1/8 of it, showing all routes in the area and to the center).
    People can choose to see the frequent map for longer travels and/or the complete PT offered in their local area.

  9. Old Buccaneer December 17, 2016 at 9:47 pm #

    I may be a bit late to this party – and too metropolitan-centric – but I’m struck by the absence of discussion about the possibilities of digital mapping & the use of smartphone apps for navigating public transport systems. I’m aware that ‘bus users tend to be older & poorer, so less likely to use computers & smart phones (bit of a broad generalisation).

  10. Mark H December 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    The London map shown is not entirely “colour for technology” in that the different underground railway lines have the usual colour they are associated with.

    The London bus service is extremely complex but because for the fares policy and typical journey times many users will take a bus from somewhere near their home and transfer to a rail service if they are crossing London or have a destination in the centre.

    Generally passengers will know their local bus routes and perhaps some in central London but not have extensive knowledge of the whole network. Due to congestion there is a tendency for routes to be split (a shorter route makes the service easier to regulate).

    The “spider diagrams” are good for localities but I’ve not seen a map for London bus routes based on a line per route showing the whole city.

Leave a Reply