washington: what makes a great subway map?

Washington metro What should Washington Metro's next subway map look like?  Greater Greater Washington is running a map contest where you can compare a number of designs, and choose your favorite.  Can you improve on the existing one, pictured here?

Even if you're nowhere near Washington, perusing these maps will help you articulate your own views.  For example:

  • Should a subway map be largely to scale, so that you can see the distances invovled, or distorted so that complex areas are easy to see?
  • How much detail about the surrounding geography should be shown?
  • Should it show non-subway services that also provide important links between stations?  In Washington, for example, all the subway lines go downtown, so many other services (bus, future light rail) are useful for connecting between outer parts of different lines.  Should the whole web of those possibilities be shown?

Go vote!  GGW has done a great job cultivating public interest in transit details, and steering the public debate toward clearer thought about these practicalities.  Help them out!

17 Responses to washington: what makes a great subway map?

  1. Mikko Särelä May 17, 2011 at 3:38 am #

    My answer: it depends.
    It depends on what are the most difficult complexities that need and can be shown in the map – and that depends on the city.

  2. Alan Davies May 17, 2011 at 4:01 am #

    Looking just a little ahead, I think the key is to design maps to work on smartphones and PDAs. That opens up new possibilities, especially in conveying complex information clearly.

  3. tacony palmyra May 17, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    One of my biggest problems navigating the DC Metro is that it usually helps to know the terminus of the train you’ll be taking, but the maps don’t emphasize the stops at the end of the lines. If I go check the map to confirm “okay, I’m at Gallery Pl-Chinatown and I’m going to Columbia Heights” and then a Greenbelt-bound train pulls in, I might have to go back to the map because I forget whether Greenbelt or Branch Ave is the direction I need to head. And worse yet if the train is for some reason terminating somewhere else along the line.
    As a New Yorker I’m instinctually forgetting about this because the NYC subway uses very broad directional cues: Uptown or Downtown, Bronx or Brooklyn, Queens or Manhattan. Most people probably couldn’t tell you the name of the stops where most of the trains terminate. You just need to know the direction. But in DC, the train announcements and labels emphasize the terminus, while the maps don’t. I think there’s a disconnect here. When I trace my eyes along the Red Line, my eyes stop when I reach Adams Morgan, and I don’t look out into the Maryland suburbs where I’ve never been and have no need to go. The map should scream “this is the train to Shady Grove!” but it doesn’t.

  4. Tom West May 17, 2011 at 7:00 am #

    At first glance, I wondered what line was inficated by the pale blue, and why it varied in thicknesss. Then I realised it was the river… London’s tube map shwos the river, but in a way such that (1) it doesn’t look like a subway line and (2) it isn’t the most prominent feature.
    I find it incredibly revealing that London’s map hasn’t chnagedin 70 years, while other agencies feel the need to tweak things every 15 years. To me, that says London got it Right, and the best option would be everyone else to copy it. (So, topology over geometry all the way).

  5. ant6n May 17, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    I don’t think transit maps should be geographical. What information does that convey? It’s not like a transit map can not really be used for anything but transit trips. Mostly it gives an idea of how long actual distances are -as the bird flies- in comparison to others.
    But when we travel along the network in the metro, we perceive different distances differently, because of speed differences. On a transit map, we mostly understand the travel time as the number of stations traveled, which is a fair approximation.
    When actually walking through a city, we perceive different areas differently, based on how much ‘stuff’ there is.
    So having a non-geographical map can make sense – it provides a map that resembles our perception of the place. There’s ‘more’ downtown, both above and below ground, so these areas shown bigger. Our sense of place is warped, to make it easier for our mind to understand it – so why shouldn’t the transit map do the same?

  6. GT May 17, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    @tacony palmyra: There is a good reason for this on the Red Line: every other train at rush hour terminates before the end of the line, so that train to $Station is important or you might end up short of your destination. But, yeah, different conventions would mess with me too.

  7. Zoltán May 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    “”okay, I’m at Gallery Pl-Chinatown and I’m going to Columbia Heights” and then a Greenbelt-bound train pulls in, I might have to go back to the map because I forget whether Greenbelt or Branch Ave is the direction I need to head.”
    I’ve spent quite a lot of time in DC, and I don’t think at any point I ever remembered which direction was which on the green line.

  8. anonymouse May 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    @Tom West, I don’t think it’s strictly true that the London map hasn’t changed in 70 years. It’s been having all sorts of subtle changes and updates over the years, including some pretty radical ones with the inclusion of non-Tube services in the form of the DLR and Overground, and icons for step-free access, among other things. But the basic concept remains the same, and at this point I don’t think they could change it if they wanted to: it’s a part of everyone’s perception of the Tube.
    @ant6n, you make a very good point. Thanks to maps, we tend to think about the ground as a flat euclidean plane, with distances being “as the bird flies”. But this is a poor approximation even for a pedestrian, because we’re not birds. There are barriers to movement, both hard barriers like rivers and softer barriers like hills that make walking more difficult in certain directions. Once you add transit, or cars and freeways, travel time can become really non-uniform in different directions, and the to-scale map becomes an even worse approximation of what’s really important, which is travel time, and which is determined by the network topology.

  9. The Overhead Wire May 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    In seriousness, having a large subway is a really good precursor to having a good map. We don’t have enough of them in this country, even in our larger cities. Some might say we need more density. I say connect the places we got and see what happens in the future…

  10. Zoltán May 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    The circumstances of the DC metro favour a map as distorted as that one. It does two quite distinct things – In the suburbs, it essentially provides intense commuter rail service with stops about 1-3km apart, and downtown, it provides local service with stops about 500-800m apart.
    One thing that’s always bugged me about the DC map is the unnecessarily wide lines that make the labels hard to read, as they are small and frequently overlap with the lines. Anyone can trace a line of even modest width; reading text is more complicated.
    Part of the problem is the small text is also the complicated station names. I know nowhere else that feels the need to convey so much with its station names, as if people are getting on the metro with no idea of where they’re going. In fact, with the absence of street names, all that information fails to convey exactly where the station is unless you already know.
    Renaming stations to things like “PA Av – Archives”, “G/7 Sts – Chinatown” , “U St – Cardozo”, “I/23 Sts – GWU” would seem to convey more useful information in a way succinct enough to be conveyed in considerably larger type.

  11. Dave May 17, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    I know that Washington must have a primary map which is topology based and displayed in the stations, cars and used in guidebooks, but I hope they will also have two other maps available in the stations: a complete network geographic map and local street diagram of the station area. I got used to this in German city subways 30 years ago and to this day wonder why other cities in Europe and the U.S. don’t do this. These ancillary maps are paper and not so expensive to create though there is some labor to post them in a hundred stations every few years.

  12. Joshua May 18, 2011 at 4:58 am #

    I agree with what Tom says. London’s map works brilliantly, adapt and copy it shamelessly. I think one of the options in the GGW sites does pretty much exactly that, and unsurprisingly that one is easiest to make sense out of.

  13. ant6n May 18, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Montreal does this, too. They have the metro map, overall system map (very large), neighborhood maps, night bus map – which are all posted at stations. The maps look a bit ghetto, though 😛
    There must be more cities in North America which have all these maps, no?

  14. Alon Levy May 18, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    In a city with a large metro network, especially one with multiple paths between two stations, non-geographic maps make it difficult to figure out which route to take. For example, if I want to go from Union Station to the Pentagon, should I switch to the Blue Line at Metro Center or to the Yellow Line at Gallery Place-Chinatown?

  15. DC resident May 18, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    @Dave – DC does actually post local maps in stations, as well as maps with bus routes that connect to the station you’re in.
    As for German whole system maps, I do remember the Berlin transit maps from when I lived there in 2006. My recollection was that they didn’t actually show the whole system – only high-frequency service (which, thankfully, is dense). S-bahn, U-bahn, metro bus and metro trams were covered, but local-stop less-frequent tram and bus service wasn’t included. I didn’t discover this until I had a friend who lived on the 12 tram. Not the M12 tram, but the 12 – the only time I saw it on a map was inside a tram.
    I’d be interested in seeing DC employ a map that shows all of the frequent service in the system, but there are a couple of obstacles to that in this city. There are different fare structures for the two systems, and there are lots of different jurisdictions that operate buses (WMATA is the region-wide service, but DC and individual counties and cities in MD and VA also have their own bus systems). I know the DC was experimenting with maps of frequent-service bus corridors, but the metro region is so large that we’d end up with an illegible map if we tried to combine all of that information over the entire metro area.
    I hope people go and vote – I’m curious to see how people who aren’t familiar with the system respond to the maps.

  16. Ted K. May 18, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    There are two parts to this problem. One part is having decent maps at the bus shelters and stations. SFMuni and BART are good examples with diagrammatic maps (both), station area (BART), and city-wide geographic (SFMuni).
    The other part is putting maps on the system’s web site. SFMuni has several available (“System Maps”) and BART has a map tree that starts with their station list. Pick a station from the list and you get a page (“General” tab) for that station with a thumbnail map from Google. Click on that map and you get another page (“Neighborhood Map” tab) with a larger image. The “Station Map” tab leads to a Flash-based map.
    The key words are context and access. For some questions a list of stations on a diagram is the answer. But once I get to a station I need its context – what does the neighborhood look like ? And I don’t want to have to fumble around with confusing menus or hidden maps. Put the information right in front of me (e.g. one end of the bus shelter or on the wall next to the exit).
    BART can be a little confusing because they are station-centric (main menu bar is “Home | Stations |…| About BART”). But they do provide a map link as part of their search block in the upper right corner (“Contact / BART Map [___] Search”).
    P.S. Re : Wash.,D.C. Metro Map
    The water features such as rivers and bays are an important part of context. Perhaps the river labels should be larger and in orange letters. It took me a few moments to spot the labels near the Arlington Cemetery (Potomac) and above R.R./ Wash. Nat’l. Airport (Anacostia).

  17. Nathanael May 25, 2011 at 12:33 am #

    The ideal map depends on the city.
    It should always be a diagram. It should always make it easy to tell “how to get there from here”. But what makes that clear depends on the city topography, city geography, and metro network layout and operations.
    London actually needs its map redone. But the principle of it was solid: in the outer areas, people basically just commute in from an outer point, so a line with stops listed is all that is wanted. In the inner area, with a more complicated network graph, something closer to geographic needs to be used, but also greater emphasis needs to be given to transfers and network structure, and the entire area needs to be “zoomed in” relative to the outside part.
    Good principles.