london: questioning sacred maps

Buses from Farringdon (West End)

Are you tired of hearing that London does everything right when it comes to transit?  Do you wonder if the mapping styles widely copied from London are always the best?   Are you even open to the heresy that London's famous Underground map, despite its global reach as an image, may be less than perfect?  Then you'll enjoy Kerwin Datu's affectionate take-down of London's information system, at the Global Urbanist.  My favorite bit, about the image above:

These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'

UPDATE:  Excellent arguments in London's defense, in the comments.  More responsible followup by me here.

8 Responses to london: questioning sacred maps

  1. Miggle July 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    I think the point of these maps is being missed. They answer the question “Where can I go from here?”, rather than a overview of the entire network or links between major tourist destinations. The main complaint seems to be that London’s tube map is too abstract rather than anything about spider maps, but TFL produces a tourist map which seems to include all the features praised in Paris’s map (bar depicting the underlying street network). I’m sure similar maps are displayed at London’s major tourist destinations.
    Almost every time I catch a bus I hear someone ask the driver (or ask them myself): “Does this bus go to _______?” A spider map at every bus stop would help reduce confusion like that.
    However, the London spider maps maps could be improved by showing the bus and tube connections available at each interchange along the route, rather than simply the Underground roundel.

  2. David M July 12, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    Actually – those Spider Maps are very well designed. They have lots of them, one for every major stop location in Greater London (London is broken up into 33 boroughs and there are around 50 spider maps for each borough – so there’s around 1500-1600 spider maps). As the writer above states, they tell you where you can get on buses leaving from that location. Remember too that the UK bus system is not based on the free transfer system we are used to in North America. When you get on a second or train bus you pay again (or use your Oyster card).
    They’re even used, in a more limited way, in Victoria BC – Royal Oak Exchange has one showing all of the routes and destinations that can be reached on a one-seat ride.

  3. Neil D July 13, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    London Buses do also produce ‘traditional’ bus network maps, showing the entire network; they can be found here (scroll down the page a bit) These are available from Transport for London enquiry offices and at bus stations.
    One of the main problems is the density of the bus network, particularly in the central area, where you then end up with having to balance the scale of a map against its size. The maze of bus-served streets in the proper City of London, the main commercial district, would test a cartographer’s skills in producing a clear map at a scale that’s easily read on the move.
    There are many arguments to be had about how much information passengers want/need at each stage of their journey – whilst network-wide maps are useful when planning a trip (and you have time to absorb the quantity of information they present), most people find them intimidating if confronted with them on the street and they need specific information quickly. That’s not to say that additional detail could be added to the Spider Diagrams, for instance if there are other bus stops nearby that are served by other routes (just indicating the service number and ultimate destination).
    It comes down to the question of journey planning – how many people turn up at a bus stop and plan their entire journey from there, or how many now use the internet to do their planning beforehand? I know I generally prefer to have details of my complete journey before I step out of the front door.

  4. Alan Howes July 13, 2011 at 4:54 am #

    OK, I suppose Datu has one or two valid points – but when presenting information on a complex transport network there has to be a balance between comprehensiveness and comprehensibility – and having looked at the options a few times, I still think London has it about right.
    Sure, the Spider Maps would be improved by addition of more detail – but the more detail you have, the more often any of those 1500+(?) maps will need updating, and/or risks being misleading. (A problem, I suspect, with the Paris approach – though I do like the look of their material.)
    I don’t actually understand some of Datu’s criticism – he says “Open any of these maps (will pop up in a new window), and see if you can find your way to any of the other destinations: the Houses of Parliament, … the Tate Modern (this one’s especially difficult!) …”
    But I followed his “Tate Modern” link, which opened up a Spider Map based on Southwark – it quite clearly showed Tate Modern within the “central yellow box”, obviously walkable from “you are here”.
    And yes, the classic “Beck” tube map does have a lot of people thinking that London really does look like that – in some respects, that’s a measure of its success! Almost anyone can follow the Beck map, which is a lot more than can be said for most maps, of any variety. To say the map has “come into shame” is a bit rich!

  5. Ed July 13, 2011 at 4:59 am #

    The writer uses the somewhat narrow view of a tourist looking to catch a London bus in his criticism. While there are obviously thousands of visitors arriving in London each day the post misses the utility of these spider maps for residents of London who have at least some knowledge of the bus network and neighborhoods. We lived in London for three years and I found the maps to be incredibly useful while navigating around the surface network.
    Maps and infographics are compromises on reality — cartographers have to choose an appropriate scale, level of detail, and make choices on which features to show or omit. And users of maps have different preferences on how much information they can “digest”. Is the author so sure that tourists don’t walk up to the Paris bus map and immediately decide that it is too complex for them (and in French!) and elect to take a taxi?
    To me this type of London at-stop information is an appropriate compromise — enough detail to be useful but not enough to overwhelm anybody. I prefer them to the Paris model.

  6. Tom West July 13, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    I would say most people at bus stop have a rough idea where they are going and how to get there. The information at the bus stop should help confirm details, rather allow arbitrary trip planning.
    In the West Midlands (UK), each bus stop shows the key downstream destinations for each route, and the typical time to get there. It also shows all departure times. It’s all nicely laid out, and is by far the best bus stop info I’ve seen.
    Around Toronto, bus stops never tell you anything about routes, times or anything else. Bizare.

  7. SpyOne July 15, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Yes, the Tate Modern is easy to find on the Tate Modern map. But he said find your way to the other destinations. Open the Tate Modern map, then try to plan a route from there to the Houses of Parliament by bus.
    Or open any of the others and try to find your way to the Tate Modern.
    While these maps might be useful for telling one where a given bus goes, they aren’t actually very helpful in telling you where you can go from “here”, since they don’t show you things the bus merely passes near or other buses it might connect with, and are utterly useless at answering the question “how do I get to ____?”, especially if you don’t already know exactly where your destination is.

  8. Alan Howes July 15, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Oh, now I see what he means.
    But these maps are not intended to “[tell] you where you can go from “here”” – TfL has other ways of doing that.