Frequent Network Maps: An Obvious Idea That Took Forever to Happen

Muni bit If you know San Francisco at all, take a look at Steve Boland’s new map of its high-frequency “main lines.”   It’s quite deservedly copyrighted, so I’ve shown just a taste of it here.

For years I’ve advocated that transit agencies need to produce clear maps of their high-frequency networks, so that people can quickly see where they can go without waiting long.  I also argue that these maps should be on the wall of every planner, everyone making decisions about social services, indeed everyone who decides where to locate anything.  Because ultimately, the most effective public transit is what happens when the city grows in response to the transit network — just as all cities did until about 1945.

The problem with using a typical agency-published transit map is that it usually makes all the lines look equally important, thus concealing the crucial distinction of frequency.  Only consistently frequent services (frequent all day, evening, and weekend) can be relied on for all the needs of life, and for this reason you need to focus on the frequent network when you’re thinking about where to locate something that will need that kind of service.
Portland’s Tri-Met has had one of these maps for years, which looks like this.  See also Brisbane’s frequent network diagram, which they call BUZ, here.  Los Angeles has such a map here.
Steve Boland’s map of San Francisco Muni is at a much more zoomed-in scale (easy to do because San Francisco is so tiny — only 7 miles [11 km] wide).  He takes advantage of this scale to show every single stop.  This is helpful, too, becuase it gives a graphical sense of how many stops there are, which is a good signal of how slow the service is.
(The map does contain one unfortunate bit of modal bias.  It shows one low-frequency service, the Caltrain commuter rail line, whose midday frequency has just been cut back to hourly.  To be consistent, if it’s going to show such infrequent regional services, it should also show SamTrans, AC Transit, and Golden Gate Transit buses, all of which run more frequently than Caltrain.  To be a simple and clear map about frequency, Caltrain should be omitted.)
Increasingly, I think we’re going to see the most useful and informative transit maps come from the private sector.  Transit agencies should be watching who’s doing the most useful maps, and be ready to adopt the best innovations.
Hat tip:  The Pedestrianist

3 Responses to Frequent Network Maps: An Obvious Idea That Took Forever to Happen

  1. Michael Perkins June 27, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    This post rocks. Thanks for finding other examples of this style of map. I made my own for DC and discussed it here:
    I’m glad to see some other agencies actually doing that; I was not able to convince WMATA to spend the time. WMATA’s bus service is somewhat complicated which made the map a little difficult.
    Direct link to the map is here:,-77.02755&spn=0.056105,0.085831&z=13
    I used only bus lines that run every 12 minutes or better from the morning rush through the evening rush.

  2. anonymouse June 27, 2009 at 10:45 am #

    The MBTA had a very useful feature on their system map at one point. The “frequent service” bus lines were shown with a thicker line with a different color compared to the regular bus lines. And the very infrequent rush hour only type of services were shown with a thin black line. So at a glance, you could see which routes you could expect to run regularly, and which you’d have to wait for.

  3. Ted King March 9, 2010 at 1:07 am #

    The SFCityscape link at the beginning of this post is stale and bogus. I think the site may have been re-structured. Here are some replacements :
    SFCityscape Home Page
    SFMuni Mainlines w/ BART + Caltrain