Anton Dubrau’s Automated Transit Maps

Back in 2010, cartographer Anton Dubrau got my attention with his beautiful hand-drawn map of the Montréal transit system.  In my post on his work, I wrote:

There’s no question that the most beautiful network maps will continue to be those made by hand, with great care and thought, by people who know the city.  I’d like to say “most useful” as well, but that will be true only as long as they can be kept up to date.

Anton agreed, but now he’s not so sure.  He emailed me today:

It feels like a long time ago that Google Maps started publishing their transit maps generated by algorithms. You wrote about it, and I actually made a map by hand of Montreal’s frequent transit that you used in this discussion of algorithms vs humans for maps, on your blog: Montréal: The Pleasure of Maps Made by Hand, or by Eye.

Even though I advocated for maps made by hand at the time, the question of algorithmically generated but nevertheless pretty and functional transit maps has occupied me since then, for years. Well, working for Transit App, I had the chance to spend a significant amount of time trying to make the best algorithmically generated maps possible. We spent a significant amount of effort on this. Although not perfect, I feel we’ve gotten pretty far.

We published the maps last week, they’re shown inside Transit App. We wrote about our mapping story, telling it as wanting to achieve the prettiness of Apple’s more manual solution, but the scalability of Google’s automatic process. In short, we wanted algorithms to draw beautiful transit maps. Check out Chicago’s Loop as an example.

Jarrett here.  In the images above, Google is on the right, Apple in the center, and Anton’s new Transit Maps product on the left.  I recommend their entire post, which is a fun and well-illustrated read, if a bit brash.  Anton:

It’s a bit brash, in true startup fashion, but the response has been pretty positive overall so far. The story is getting shared by tech celebrities like Benedict Evans, NYT data journalists, and quite a number of transit thought leaders (Yonah Freemark, Second Avenue Sagas, Taras Grescoe).

So far we’re only including rail lines, and the odd BRT here and there. That’s a more technical limitation, bus networks are still a bit too complex – we plan to add them later.

Maybe this is interesting for you as well. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

I like it!  I wonder how much information density it can handle.  A simple frequent bus network?  A complicated mass of overlapping lines with numbers like 674Q, as in a typical peak commute network?  I’d encourage them to aim for the former and not bother with the latter, which are impossible to map clearly and are better found with trip planners anyway.

I don’t run many private sector press releases here, but I’ve liked Anton’s work for a long time, and as someone who routinely needs realtime info in lots of different cities, I admit I’ve become fond of Transit App.

5 Responses to Anton Dubrau’s Automated Transit Maps

  1. Ant6n July 27, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Thank you for the shout-out, and the nice words!

    Complexity does indeed become an issue when including routes beyond just the rapid transit and heavy rail network. But one advantage we have in a ‘slippy map’ like used in a mapping application: you can zoom in and out.

    So I think the plan will be to adjust the information based on the zoom level. At the highest zoom level show rapid transit and reagional/long distance rail. Zooming in further reveals the secondary network: trams and frequent bus lines. Zooming further then reveals the local routes, at ‘street level’.

    • John French August 3, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

      I just downloaded the app and tried it out, and the maps are very pretty and readable. Great job!

      I like the idea of adjusting the map to show different information based on zoom level. For example, in San Francisco, most transit map apps show BART regional/subway lines individually with their respective colors, but MUNI light rail as a single color, making it hard to see where each light rail line goes. I can imagine a digital map which, if you zoom in from the whole Bay Area region to just the city of San Francisco, switches to showing BART as a single line and MUNI as multiple lines… and then reveals bus data as you zoom further.

      Or on the other hand, if you zoom out to see all of the US, I could imagine a map showing each separate Amtrak intercity line.

      Cool stuff!

    • EHS August 3, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

      That’s the response I was going to have to Jarrett – zoom level + clever symbology + user filters should allow you to deliver the relevant info without overwhelming the viewer.

  2. Ant6n July 27, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    …Of course, there’s only so much flexibility we have in making maps. We have to stay true to the branding of the agency. So if the agency doesn’t have any notion of frequent routes, and doesn’t highlight them in their own branding, it’s hard to justify showing them differently from local routes.

  3. Peter Laws July 30, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    Confession time. A link to that 2010 article about @ant6n’s map was posted to a Montreal transit-related forum in which I’ve participated for decades (at this point). That article introduced me to this blog, which I follow closely, but also made me think, a lot, about transit (and how great Montrealers have it).

    One thing lead to another and the next year, I was admitted to an urban planning graduate program which I started in Jan of ’12 and finished (finally – part time!) in May.

    So don’t underestimate the power of what you do and post on your blogs … 🙂