San Francisco: A world-class transit map unveiled

A few years ago we assisted San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in rethinking how they talk about the various services they operate.  Our key idea was to classify services by tiers of frequency, while also distinguishing, at the highest frequency only, between faster and slower services.  In extensive workshops with staff, we helped the agency think through these categories and the names to be used for them.

It's great to see the result coming out on the street.  The old-fashioned term "limited," for example, been replaced by "Rapid," a new brand that emphasizes speed and reliability improvements as well as frequency and widely spaced stops.  

But the biggest news is that a new network map, by Jay Primus and David Wiggins, is about to debut.   Don't open it yet!!  Before you do, look at it in a fuzzy small image:


Notice how much information you can get just from this fuzzy picture.  Most transit maps are total nonsense at this resolution, but in this one, even though you can't even see the legend, you can see the structure.  All you need to know is that bigger, brigher lines are more useful lines, because they tend to be faster or more frequent.  In other words, this works just like any coherent street or map (paper or online) in which the faster roads are more visually prominent.  Any good map is legible at multiple levels of attention, including very zoomed out like this, and in loving detail of every right and left, which you'll also admire if you zoom into the massive PDF.

Why has it taken so long for transit maps to get this clear?  Well, first of all, you have to figure out that frequency, not speed, is the primary equivalent of speed in a highway map.  Highways and streets can all be ranked by their design speed, but in transit, frequency trumps speed in determining most kinds of utility, and speed distinctions matter most where frequency is already high.

(The exception, high speed but low frequency service, tends to be commuter rail and commuter express bus service.  That service is so intrinsically specialized and complex that it makes a complete mess if you put it on the map with the all-day frequent routes.  These ephemeral routes must be faded out; on this new map they are the weakest lines of all.  The previous map was chaotic precisely because it used the strongest color — red — for these most specialized and ephemeral services, concealing the structure of interdependent service that is running all the time and that vastly more people will use.)

What are the other barriers to maps of this clarity?  Well, you have to decide whether your goal is information (helping people understand their options) or marketing (which at its worst means deliberately confusing people so that they do you want them to do).   I have always argued that in transit, clear and beautiful information is the best marketing, but many professional marketers disagree.  

This map is glorious because it's 100% information.  Services aren't highlighted because someone thinks that they serve "target markets" or "more important demographics", for example.  Everything is mapped, and named, according to its potential usefulness to anyone.  The more diverse the range of people who'll find a service useful, the brighter the line is.

Of course, it doesn't show everything, but that's also why it's clear.  I'm sure I will be bombarded with comments pointing out that they don't show how San Francisco's network connects to the wider region's, and that they don't show how transit integrates with cycling, walking, private transit, Segways, and whatever else.  Including too much non-transit information is also a great way to make transit maps confusing.  This map is just what it is, a map of San Francisco's fixed route transit network.  It's also, in my experience, one of the best in the world, something even the world's best transit systems could learn from.  

13 Responses to San Francisco: A world-class transit map unveiled

  1. Wai Yip Tung April 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Agree this is hugely improved map. One of the best thing of this map is the commute hour expresses lines (X lines) is shown as dotted line. They were huge distraction in official map giving impression does a dense overlapping network but are in fact unavailable most of the day. With them deemphasized, it becomes lot more clear what your choices are available really.

  2. anonymouse April 13, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    I love this new map. It very quickly answers the question of “is this line worth waiting for?” I also love that the standard of frequency is 10 minutes, rather than 15, because 15 minutes is quite a long time to wait, especially in a city as small as SF. But, this awesome map actually required considerable changes to the underlying bus network. Mostly, this was in increasing the service span of the rapid lines (I believe they run 7 days a week now), so that they can serve as a proper backbone of the network in places where the Muni Metro doesn’t reach.

  3. Miles Bader April 13, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    The exception, high speed but low frequency service, tends to be commuter rail and …

    You mean, American-style commuter rail….

  4. Kagrimkbtiods April 14, 2015 at 3:25 am #

    I agree, VERY good map, however I still miss the local bus stops. Wouldn’t it be possible to mark them the same way as the Muni Metro and Rapid stops, but with smaller cirles?

  5. Kelly Glenn April 14, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    I love the emphasis on frequency rather than speed. I absolutely find myself making route decisions based on the chances of getting on quickly and reliably, rather than moving fast, which is arbitrary anyway.

  6. John Perry April 14, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    That is beautiful. It’s fun to look at it side-by-side with the old Muni map to compare the differences. I’m glad your team did away with the different coloration for crosstown/downtown service; that was a distinction that struck me as wholly pointless for the needs of the Muni service map. The “nonstop” sections of lines is also an inspired (and very useful!) touch.
    I think the big trade-off with this new map is that the old map effectively acted as a detailed street map of San Francisco, which was a useful amenity to have plastered on bus stops all over the place (back before I had a smartphone and Google Maps to check). This new one still has all the streets, but the white color on light grey background do make them pretty faint. But it does make for a much cleaner map, so I suppose it’s a worthy trade-off.

  7. Jo Brant April 17, 2015 at 1:30 am #

    This map made me aware of a huge flaw with the map used by the Santa Clara VTA: Which colors jump out at you? Probably the red and green, right? The red lines are express buses which, other than line 181, run infrequently and only during peak hours. Same deal with the green (limited stop) buses other than line 323. You can even tell by the overall shape that VTA has managed to create a reasonable grid of services in a sprawling suburban area, but the map needs to emphasize what services are more reliable. VTA does have a separate map of frequent (15 minutes or less headway) service, they should follow Muni’s example and also convey that information in the map. And don’t even get me started on AC Transit using a different color for every bus line on its map.

  8. roymeo April 21, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Interesting to see how legible these are after exposed to the sun at a bus stop for a while.

  9. Dexter Wong April 25, 2015 at 2:01 am #

    Already there is a complaint about one Muni Map that was posted sideways at a bus shelter.

  10. Ben Pease April 30, 2015 at 7:49 am #

    My sense from the PDF is that the new map does a good job of showing the network and frequency; the loss of neighborhood names, schools, libraries, and street addresses, etc. is unfortunate, but given the small scale, it does help clarify the network. It’s a pretty good map in print or PDF.
    But today I got my first glimpse of the new maps in the bus shelters. Because they are printed so coarsely, they look a LOT more like the fuzzy version posted above than the crisp PDF. The double-line streets are almost illegible. The fine blue secondary street names are also illegible (comparing two maps, I think I saw an emergency change from light blue to a spot gray; it didn’t help). Shorelines are fuzzy. Parks are harsh. The tint over the downtown inset overpowers the map. Better CMYK color choices could help smooth the graphics so the array of dots works for rather than against the map, and restore a little warmth.
    2 blocks over on a secondary line, the old MUNI map by Kris Bergstrom of Cartographics) still looks pretty good. [Full disclosure, one of my mentors]. Alas, same coarse printing, but much info works well, including most bus routes, and single-line CMY gray streets. What gets lost are some of the pale reds and yellows of crosstown lines; and reversed numerals in the red express bus route bubbles. Maybe the cyan had faded after a year? Less evident but important is the designer’s 30+ years of knowledge as to what PRINTS well for the end user. I hope the new folks get to tinker with their creation and make it better, get in their 10,000 hours.
    An aside, SF’s fancy new bus shelters are known for not protecting people from rain (if it rains), but nobody’s noticed the transit maps are posted starting at 4 feet off the ground, and the top is about 7 feet high, like a little billboard. (There’s a blank area with lighting ballasts and talking bus stop equipment underneath). Apparently children (FUTURE USERS), short adults, and wheelchair users don’t need access to transit maps at nose level?
    Cartographic’s MUNI map may have been a little stuck in its ways (in defense of good typography and overall design) but there were good reasons for the colors, especially miraculous remembering it started out on mylar with miles of Chartpak tape. (Why did they highlight the crosstown buses? Grid service was new in the late 1980s). Way back in the late 1970s all we had was a privately-printed North-Am street map with fat blue bus routes crudely overlaid, no sense of network or how the lines overlapped; the MUNI map was for its day a revelation as to how the system really worked. Which the new map does in its own way, too.

  11. Steve Pepple May 7, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    Great commentary, Jarrett.
    I think it’s amazing that the map works so well, considering it was designed 10 years ago. The designers made some excellent considerations and design tradeoffs:
    Indeed, the map should be critiqued for the minimal amount of information about other transit services, especially interchanges with BART and Caltrain. This is a notable problem in the Bay Area and maps can play a small part in correcting for it.
    The system wide is legible, but I worry that it’s not very legible for users in local neighborhoods and bus stops. I’d like to see Muni create localized versions of this map, that include wayfinding elements, such as relevant points of interest. In this regard, the overall approach is dated and could benefit from investment in better IT and GIS.
    Additionally, the use of branded colors of blue and red could be confusing to some users. The distinction between rail and bus is important, but showing rapid and non-rapid along the same lines visually to blurs to purple. Notice how the downtown area is far less readable.

  12. Novacek June 1, 2015 at 11:16 am #

    Any comments on Austin’s new redesigned map?

    • Anonymous April 20, 2016 at 4:42 am #

      Very great design, however it is useless since it does not display which sections of the bus routes that have stops and which sections that do not have stops.