Transit Planning for Fictional Universes: It’s Serious Business

As longtime readers know, I would reject the claim — repeated today by Benjamin Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas — that “in fictional universes, subway systems do not have to make much sense.”  So I would not be as quick as he to excuse the incoherences of the newly announced Gotham Transit Authority Map:

While Batman himself has other transport options, many fictional people are going to need transit to assemble the necessary crowds and populate the alleys and crevices of his plots, and those people certainly need better than this.

Perhaps I nitpick because I was raised on higher-grade science fiction and fantasy, in an era when authors felt compelled to think about every relevant dimension of their world.  In those days, you didn’t worry so much, while exploring the fictional world, that if you leaned on a tree it might collapse like a flimsy cardboard set, revealing a blank space that the author hadn’t seen fit to imagine.  J.R.R. Tolkien knew all the personalities and travails of every king for the last several millennia, and of many mythical ages before that.  You could at least expect an urban imaginer to be sure the transport system made credible sense.

Even more important than the fictional universe, of course, is the hypothetical one, where even more care is required!

Are you an aspiring science fiction writer or screenwriter?  If so, have you hired a transit planner yet?

15 Responses to Transit Planning for Fictional Universes: It’s Serious Business

  1. Miles Bader November 9, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    Anyone wanna detail what the exact issues with this map are?
    It doesn’t on the face of it look so different from real subway systems—which after all, are often grown as much as they are designed, over lonnnnng periods of time, and can end up with some odd attributes as a result…

  2. Beta Magellan November 9, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    The Dark Knight is actually the only film where something related to transit kind took me out of the picture—the film crew was using either using CTA buses on loan or buses painted to look just like them. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but at one particularly suspenseful moment a bus pulled up and I could see that they’d just added a little line to the “C.” Everyone else in the theater was in at the edge of their seats—I was trying to hold back laughter.

  3. BBnet3000 November 9, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    I brushed off the chaos of the map (NYC subway in the mind of a schizophrenic) but the point about sci-fi is good. They did make up a whole language (Klingon) for a TV show (not to mention all the canon throughout the sci-fi ages, as youve mentioned).

  4. Ben LeRoy November 9, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    @Miles Bader
    The biggest difference I see is that few, if any, of the lines follow street corridors. Think of BART (Market Street), SEPTA (Broad Street), MTA (8th Ave, Broadway, etc.), and CTA (State Street, expressways). It’s true that some street corridors grew up along with or as a result of rail lines, but I can’t think of a system where the lines just cut across a gridded street network.

  5. EngineerScotty November 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Much of the Washington DC Metro pretty much ignores the street network; neither being aligned with the grid nor with the avenues. Much of the system is bored quite deeply, so there’s less need to avoid building foundations and other obstacles that would limit where a closer-to-the-surface metro would go.

  6. Jo Walton November 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    It’s one of the reasons why I’m reading your blog.

  7. anonymouse November 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    The map actually seems to mostly make sense. Assuming that Gotham is roughly like New York, the lower left area would be Downtown and the middle left would be Midtown, with the concentration of lines there being fairly logical. The radial lines extending a couple of stops past the rivers make sense, considerably more so than NYC’s ending things at the jurisdictional boundary. The blue line from the North Island to the Eastern Boroughs seems a little odd, because you wouldn’t generally expect that much demand for a crosstown route, but maybe it was built on top of an old freight right of way (like the Hell Gate/NYCR line in New York). The Eastern Crosstown is a bit more logical since it hits a couple of the key hubs in the Eastern Boroughs. The one really out of place line is the V-shaped orange line roughly in the middle. It has a very indirect route, with lots of water crossings, and seems largely redundant with the Green Line, except for residents of that little peninsula in the southeast corner of the North Island.

  8. Isaac Laquedem November 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    I noticed a point similar to Ben Leroy’s. Many of the lines both follow streets and cut across the grid. I would have expected the older lines to have been cut-and-cover lines, thus following streets, with newer lines being tube or bored lines, running from station to station. Also, if Gotham City is an old East Coast city, there should be some portion of the street grid that’s helter-skelter, like the south tip of Manhattan Island or the hill section of Boston.

  9. Alon Levy November 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    I did write sci-fi once in which the ecunemopolis had an elevated HSR system making no stops (there were special acceleration modules transporting passengers to and from stations). And the older, grittier part of the city had an el network running on a relentlessly regular 1 km grid, back from the era people used ground-level streets.
    As for the Gotham map, what annoys me the most is that it non-canonically fails to put the Wayne Industries tower at the center of the map. This map does it way better.

  10. Jo Walton November 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    The more I look at that subway map, the more I understand the levels of crime in that community.

  11. EngineerScotty November 11, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Someone should draw a transit map for Coruscant.

  12. November 12, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    That’s kind of what transit in Atlanta would look like, if we built subway instead of rail… The last line wasn’t good enough, so we’ll just build a totally new one in the same general area.
    Actually, the map is very appropriate for a place like Gotham. Gotham/NYC are the only places you could have parallel, competing subway lines without hurting your ridership.
    Also, the lines are all very swoopy; looks like the focus was on building ‘modern’ ultra-fast rail, and they didn’t have to worry about ROW acquisition. (Areas were too poor to resist or too decrepit to care.)
    I any case, it was definitely built by an alliance of the rich and powerful, with neither creativity nor knowledge of the needs of transitizens. Competing business/ political interests are probably the reason for the competing lines.

  13. Sam240 November 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    “Also, if Gotham City is an old East Coast city, there should be some portion of the street grid that’s helter-skelter, like the south tip of Manhattan Island or the hill section of Boston.” – Isaac Laquedem
    Baltimore (1729) is built up from a series of grids. While some grids may be helter-skelter in relation to others, all the central areas are part of some grid. See
    as an example.
    Then there’s the even older Philadelphia (1682), where the entire downtown area is set up in a single grid system. Take a look at
    The skew in the northwest corner wasn’t a part of the original layout. The original city was bounded by Vine Street, South Street, and the two major rivers, and the main diagonal (the Benjamin Franklin Parkway) wasn’t introduced until 1917.
    The original parts of Gotham City could have been laid out by some fictional version of William Penn.

  14. Thad December 3, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    More than likely it was intentionally done that way to emphasize how chaotic of a place Gotham is. Gotham City isn’t exactly portrayed as the model of efficiency and effectiveness, so it isn’t surprising that the transit system doesn’t make sense either.

  15. Bytowner July 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    If you want to see the original version of the map and learn how it was designed for the comic books back in 1999-2000, check out Eliot Brown’s website.