more uk frequent network maps: nottingham

Nottingham, UK now highlights frequent services on its network map.  More detail at the link.

Nottingham slice

Often when you first map the frequent network, you notice for the first time how self-disconnected it is.  Nottingham's frequent network is entirely radial with just one frequent orbital (crosstown) service spanning about 45 degrees of arc along the west side, easily seen on the full map.  The orbital is an extension of a radial, but it's clearly in an orbital role for a while.

One of the great outcomes of frequency is easy connections, so once you map the frequent network you usually start seeing opportunities to build more non-downtown connection opportunities, whether they be full orbital lines or just ways for two radials to connect (or even through-route at the outer ends) so as to create more direct travel opportunities within a subarea of the city.  For example, looking at this map, I immediately wonder whether 44 and 45 should be combined into a two-way loop so that you could ride through, say, between Carlton rail station in the far southeast corner of this image and Mapperley in the centre.  (You wouldn't present it as a loop in the schedule.  You'd still call it 44 and 45 but note on the map and in the timetable that 44 continues as 45 and vice versa.  This is how you build more direct travel opportunities in small city while still keeping the network legible.)

portland: the grid is 30 years old … thank a planner!

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring.

I’m not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I’m talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.  (Full map here.)

Portland grid\

What did it look like before 1982?  Here’s a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).

Portland 1970

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn’t really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them.

How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?

  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember “the Division bus.”  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.

If you’re in a hurry, skip to “Thank a Planner!” below.  But if you have a couple of minutes, let’s explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.

In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today.  In the 1970 image, look for the line marked “1” extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image.  This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don’t let that distract you).

In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour.  Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency.  When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way.  If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use.   Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.

If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream.  Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland.  Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city.  And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days).

But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn’t hard.  And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.

This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown.  These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does.  A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatilityequity and freedom.  It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go.  Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet’s most productive lines.

The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland’s livability objectives.  When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you’re probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city.  This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years — from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail — has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it.  (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :

If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.

Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from?  Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970’s route 1.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown.  Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map.  They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service.  The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city.  In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it’s OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service — the foundation for transit’s link with walking (and with all of walking’s public health outcomes) today.

The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads.  Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there’s a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus.  In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes.  The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions:  “Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south.”  The transit lines are just part of the street.

Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this.  Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders.  Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones.   Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don’t matter, no matter what they’re achieving.

Thank a planner!

If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried.  I’m especially thinking of:

  • Ken Zatarain, who was a TriMet service planner at the time and who is still at the agency.  Thank him at:  ken dot zatarain at wsp.org.
  • Thomas G. Matoff, the single most important mentor in my own transit career, and probably the critical player in pushing the grid through.  Tom, who was service planning manager and thus Ken’s boss, was an eloquent, passionate and persistent advocate for the grid both inside and outside the agency.  He was the first person I’ve met, and one of the few I’ve known, who could convey how essential network design is to the life, joy, and prosperity of a city.  Tom went on to be General Manager of Sacramento Regional Transit and is now working on the Sonoma-Marin rail project in California.  Thank him at:  tmatoff at ltk dot org .

I’m dead serious:  If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them.  In other words, do one of these things:

  • shoot emails of appreciation to the three emails above, copied to me (jarrett AT jarrettwalker DOT net), with “Thanks for the grid” in the subject line, or
  • leave a comment here, or
  • say something on Twitter with the hashtag #PDXGrid .

You might also ask the two mayoral candidates about how important the frequent grid is to their vision of the city, and whether they think it should be enhanced.

Why does this matter?  Because even today, there’s disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all.  Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of “frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable.”  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.

More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below.  But even if you don’t click, thank a planner!

Continue Reading →

greater seattle: loving the new sub-network maps

Now this is a clear map!  It's by the Seattle area agency King County Metro.  First the legend:

KC metro legend.png
RapidRIde is King County Metro's new rapid bus product, with widely spaced stops, high frequency, special stations, but usually no exclusive lane.  Note how cleanly this legend distinguishes services that are useful for different purposes.  Note too that it omits peak-only commuter express services, because if they were present they would be lots of confusing overlapping lines that would make the basic network impossible to see.

So here's a piece the map.  Click to enlarge, but more important, go here (that's an order) to see the whole thing.

KC metro eastside map

The distinctions on this map are entirely about what matters to the customer, especially the person who wants to see the all-day transit network that is ready to liberate your life, not just your commute.  Red means fast and frequent.  Blue means frequent.  Green means all day but not frequent.  And if you want to see peak commuter express services, which would obliterate the legibility of this map if they were included, see another map or individual timetable.  

To be fair, many good maps do show peak only services and visually de-emphasise them as faint dashed lines.  That works too, but the key design principle is this:  The network of any particular layer in the hierarchy of service should be clear without being obscured by lower levels of service.  This map does that perfectly:  You can see just the red Rapid Ride line, or you can focus easily on red plus blue to see the frequent network, or you can notice the paler green and see the all-day network.  All in one map.

To get to this kind of customer-centered clarity, note what they had to omit:  Two transit agencies' services are presented here with no differentiation at all.  Bus routes numbered in the 500s belong to Sound Transit while the others belong to King County Metro.  Most multi-agency regions would focus on highlighting this distinction first, on the assumption that the customer's loyalty to a transit company is much more important than their desire to get where they're going.  The distinction should arguably be at least a footnote if you don't have integrated fares between the companies, as it could imply fare penalties and different fare media.

Some multi-agency maps do show all operators, but still visually distinguish them, as the Los Angeles Metro map does, for example.  But if you want a really simple map, reduce the transit company's identity to a footnote, or something that can be inferred from a route number*, or don't even show it at all.  Instead, show the customer what matters to them: frequency, speed, and duration of service.

*Can you spot the one place on the LAMetro map where they do that?  The answer is in "Joseph E"'s comment below.


good network maps: clear without color?

As I mentioned two days back, the new Spokane, Washington network map [Full PDF], designed by CHK America, is exceptionally clear in presenting the layers of the network so that you can see all of the following at a glance;

  • The network of frequent services, useful to you if you aren't willing to wait long.
  • The network of all all-day services (frequent or not), which is the total network if you're travelling midday.
  • Supplementary express services, mostly peak-only, that are likely to be useful only to the regular peak hour commuter.  These always contain a high degree of complexity, so they must be presented in a way that visually recedes from the rest of the network, so that the all-day network is clearly visible.

The key point is that each layer is never allowed to distract from the ones above it. 

Spokane map Spokane legend

But it has one other important feature that I should mention: If you look closely, you'll see that its content is still there if you copy it to black-and white. Line widths and styles distinguish all the service categories from each other.  The only exception is the distinction between "Shuttles" and "Frequent Routes", both wide lines, and this matters less than it seems because the shuttles are frequent too.

All this is relevant not just because the world is still full of black-and-white photocopiers, but also because of color-blindness.  Matt comments: 

Recently I noticed playing around with Scribus, the Open Source Desktop Publisher (http://www.scribus.net) that "Scribus has a well developed tool, the Color Wheel plug-in, which helps to guide you selecting complementary colors, as well as visualize colors seen by folks with certain kinds of color-blindness.". So turning on an option for the three or four different types of colour-blindness lets you see what the colours look like for someone with each type.

Perhaps there is a chance that in the future a pdf viewer could incorporate something like that, such that bus maps (mostly they're rendered into pdf) and anything else in pdf could be seen as if you were colour-blind. Then the bus companies could experiment and release colourblind friendly maps.

All good, but the simplest solution for color-blindless issues is to design maps so well that the information is all there in line weights and styles, so that the color is supplementary — very, very helpful for those who can see it but not essential.  The Spokane map does this. 

The current Portland map also tries to do this, Portland inner with a different line-weight for each of its four layers.  The four layers are:

  • Light rail:  colored line with black outline.
  • Frequent Bus: heavy solid colored line (and, if you look really closely, a yellow-shaded line number)
  • Basic Bus: slightly thinner colored line.
  • Peak-only: dashed line.

Portland's TriMet uses different colors for different lines, but if you copy it to black-and-white you should still be able to make out these four line weights (though not, of course, the feeble yellow shading of frequent line numbers). 

I agree with many observers that the distinction between frequent bus and basic bus is insufficiently strong on the Portland map, whereas the Spokane map shows this distinction dramatically.  In the past, when I've tried to use the Portland map as an example of clear delineation of network layers, I've been told that the distinction just isn't clear enough, so now I'll use the Spokane map instead.  Still, Portland's intention is clear enough.


do line numbers matter at all?

Does anyone care how the lines or routes of a transit system are numbered?  Commenters Chris and Paul Jewel, the latter a former colleague of mine, say no.   They're responding to this line numbering scheme proposed by LANTA in Allentown-Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which even makes a line numbering distinction based solely on whether a route runs on Saturday. Chris's example-rich comment boils down to this:

Route design is what makes the transit system easy to understand, not what you number the routes.

Paul Jewel piles on:

I think many transit planners tend to overthink the issue of what passengers want and more importantly, what they have the capacity to understand. After 20 years of planning I have yet to come across more than a handful of transit patrons who really care about the numbering scheme of their bus system or for that matter…the system they are visiting. Visual cues (i.e. good maps) and simple number systems (perhaps variations of the NYMTA's bus lines (M=Manhattan, Q = Queens, etc) are…IMHO…far more effective than complicated numbering systems that try to organize lines into neat and clean systems.

If I may update my earlier post on this topic (which is considerably funnier than this one):  Line numbering is really a dialogue between four impulses:

  1. Big-picture Visionaries, who imagine schemes where each number will not just refer to a line, but reveal its position and role in the network.  They want the customer to be able to identify her service amid the complexity of the offerings, but also to find it easy to grasp the whole network and how its parts fit together, so that it's less threatening to use transit for something other than a single rigid commute.   For example, these people may think up schemes that recall the patterns of numbered streets and avenues in many North American cities, or the similar numbering of the US Interstate system.  Visionaries, in their extreme form, can sometimes become …
  2. Perfectionists, who believe that a line number, properly chosen, can encode all the richness and complexity of a service, so that to those in the know, the number 834 will tell you where the bus runs, what node it feeds into, how frequent it is, what color the bus is, whether it runs on Saturday, and whether you can expect the driver to be courteous.
  3. Anarchists, who need a number for a new line, don't care about the vision, and pick whatever number comes to mind. 
  4. Conservatives, who believe that once a line number is assigned it should never be changed, no matter how offensive it may be to the Visionaries, let alone the Perfectionists.  Conservatives are responsible for the permanence of various reckless numberings made by Anarchists over the years.

Paul and Chris have spoken for the Anarchists, but we've heard from a few Visionaries and Perfectionists on the last post as well.  Conservatives on this score don't tend to read transit blogs.

I agree that when perfectionists run wild, you get overly specific line numbering systems.   When I hear of a scheme where, say, the first digit of a three-digit number signifies subarea, the second signifies type, and the third signifies the node served, my first thought is :"You're going to run out of numbers. In fact, you already have."

But I do think there are several uses for line numbering systems that are clear and simple, and that help a customer see important information that might otherwise be unclear. For example, in Sydney, an important frequent corridor from downtown to the university is known as the "420-series", denoting a group of routes (421, 422, 423 etc) that all run this common segment but then branch further out. This is a clean way of conveying both the useful frequent inner segment and the individuality of the different lines.

In a huge system, numbering by subarea helps customers just sort through what would otherwise be an enormous complex mass of line numbers. Put it this way: If, to make your trip, you can take any of five routes, which of the following would you rather have to remember?

  • Route 1, 4, 7, 8, or 9
  • Any route numbered in the 30s
  • Route F, 9, J2, 76, or 239K

Few would prefer the third, I think, so I don't think it's true that a totally random or Anarchist pattern of numbers is ideal. It's also clearly true that lower numbers feel simpler. Using lower route numbers in the central city, as many big regional agencies do, helps this core area, where ridership is highest, feel more navigable without reference to the more complex networks that the suburbs require.

I do also think route numbers can help capture some basic distinctions of importance. Using certain route number groups for specialized commuter express lines, for example, helps them not distract from the simpler all-day network. Rapid transit lines can reasonably have simpler numbers, such as the letters used by Seattle's Rapid Ride against the background of 1-3 digit local line numbers.  The letters cause the Rapid Ride to "stand out" as a backbone, just as the agency intends, much the way the lettered rail lines do in San Francisco against the background of numbered bus lines.

Here's the bottom line:  Numbers, like words, never just refer.  They also connote.  You can refer to a particular bus route as F, 9, J2, 76, or 239K, but those numberings will inevitably convey subliminal messages about those services, especially in relation to the other numbers around them.  "239K" for example, connotes that "this is a really complicated network, where you deal with details even to remember a line number, let alone figure out the service."  Likewise, if you see a long segment served by lines 121, 123, 124, and 127, the connotation is that the 120s represent some kind of pattern that might be useful in understanding the service.  It's almost impossible not to refer to this segment as "the 120s".

 So do line numbers matter?  What do you think?

what if route numbers signified service level?

From the new line numbering scheme (and service plan) in Allentown-Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

All routes will be designated with a three-digit number which will provide an indication of the level of service

100’s routes act as the core routes – they will provide service Monday through Saturday throughout the day and into the evening.  These routes will also operate on Sunday;

200’s routes provide service along key urban corridors Monday through Saturday during day hours;

300’s routes provide service on the more suburban corridors in the region and operate Monday through Friday during day hours;

400’s routes continue to act as special routes to provide added capacity to meet demand from Allentown School District students;

500’s routes are LANta Flex routes – new flexible, reservation based feeder services designed for more suburban areas; and

600’s routes are circulator and crosstown routes designed to address specific markets.

So the whole numbering system is about service quantity.  Clearly, too, the higher numbers mean "don't less this distract you from the more versatile lower-numbered routes," which is exactly the principle of good frequency branding or a good network map such as Portland's (which distinguishes four tiers: light rail, frequent bus, infrequent bus, and peak-only).

Obviously, most agencies would resist the Allentown-style numbering because it means that if you change a service level you need to renumber the route.  But if followed through, it would be a step toward branding a core network (presumably also the most frequent) with route numbers, yet another way for that most versatile network to be most visible to customers. 

Personally I wouldn't recommend this if it were exclusively about service duration, as the summary states.  I'd do it only if it were also about a frequency distinction, or at least an intended one.  But it's interesting that while Frequent Networks are intended to be lasting top priorities of an agency, and usually represent permanent strong markets, no agency (in either North America or Australasia) has "locked in" the commitment to a Frequent Network by numbering the frequent lines differently.

an oxford innovation: take the bus that comes!

Oxford_City_Birdseye Oxford, England seems to have taken a step toward a more North American way of thinking about transit.

In the "deregulated" ideology governing public transit in the UK outside London, the ideal bus line is a "commercial" one, consisting of two or more bus companies running on the same street competing for passengers.  Customers are supposed to feel empowered to choose between Joe's Buses and Jim's Buses, though in practice they're likely to feel frustrated when they hold a Joe's Buses monthly ticket and therefore have to let Jim's bus go by.  The idea that the customer might just want to get where she's going, and thus just wants to get on whatever bus comes first, never fit the ideology very well.

So I was struck by this news from longtime UK reader Peter Brown:

I thought you might be interested in a significant development in the UK deregulated bus scene.  Starting on Sunday 24 July Stagecoach and Oxford Bus Company cease competing on Oxford's main bus corridors and start a co-ordinated network branded 'Oxford SmartZone'.
This arrangment was brokered by Oxfordshire County Council (the transport authority) using new powers introduced under the Labour Government whereby local authorities can negotiate a cessation of bus competetion where they judge that the free market is not providing the best service to the public. 
Oxford has been a major success story since deregulation in 1986, in that two large bus companies compete vigorously on all main corridors as was intended by the legislation.  Elsewhere in the UK bus companies have tended to consolidate by acquisition eventually forming regional monopolies.

[JW:  Note that to say Oxford was a "success" after deregulation says nothing about whether customers were served better, though that may have been the case.  As Peter notes, the deregulation movement saw competition as the goal, not any improved mobility outcomes that supposedly flowed from it.  Clearly, too, Oxford's sky-high transit demand has nothing to do with deregulation; as Peter explains, it's a feature of the city …]

Oxford's success is due to its geography, it's historic city centre which is unsuitable for unrestrained car access, its huge student population, and a pro-public transport local government.  The result is that buses account for 50% of the modal split on journeys to/from the city centre. 

However the council wishes to expand the pedestrianised area in the city centre which would concentrate bus movements onto fewer streets to an unacceptable level.  The Council therefore brokered a co-ordinated network with fewer (but larger) buses on the main corridors, reducing bus movements but maintaining capacity.  The alternative was to remove bus access to the city centre forcing passengers to transfer to shuttle services to access the pedestrianised core. 
More information on SmartZone can be found at:
You will see both companies have the same network map.  The timetables on each site show the same times but in differing formats.  Impressive frequencies until late into the evening.

North American transit advocates who think Europe Does Everything Better might want to contemplate Oxford's achievement, which is a small step toward the a simplicity that most North American transit riders take for granted.  Imagine: Your ticket can now be used on the next bus that comes!  Since this situation arises directly from a "deregulation success," it would seem to question the whole UK deregulation model, though in this case the shift is led by the companies themselves.  I suppose it could be called virtuous (and legal) collusion, and like the elimination of fare penalties between New York's buses and subways, the result is likely to be higher ridership all around.  So what were we competing about exactly?

UPDATE:  In Peter's comment, some useful updates:

Here is a local press report on the first few days. It appears that the 25% reduction in buses has been noticed, if not the fact that the new fleet are double deckers and thus capacity has been maintained.  [JW:  I'd expect that in such a bus-congested corridor, effective frequency has been maintained as well.]  For US readers I have also found an interview with the Commercial Director of one of the UK's best bus companies that has really thrived since deregulation by focussing on what passengers want.

what maps should be at stops and stations?

Yesterday I linked to a fine polemic by Kerwin Datu of the Global Urbanist, regarding London's much-imitated wayfinding system.  Datu reserved particular scorn for the "spider maps" presented at certain stops and stations, which show you only the bus lines that emanate from there.  Maps like this one.  (This is actually the west half of a map showing bus routes from the bright yellow area where the map would be posted.)

Buses from Farringdon (West End)


Datu's quip again:

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!'

The maps have many defenders, however, so I should expand on why Datu's polemic resonates with me.

First of all, of course, the London maps only make sense at all in a network where all bus lines can be assumed to be frequent.  That's true in inner London but not in many of the systems that imitate it.   If we show the customer a big, bright line direct from their location to their destination, we're conveying an impression of physical existence.  The bright line looks like a physical thing, like a road, not just the site of an occasional service event.  The whole point of Frequent Network mapping, of frequent buses and rapid transit, is that we want people to make exactly that association, to see frequent services as always there ready for them to use.

But when we use such a bright line to refer to an hourly or peak-only or nighttime-only service, we undermine that message and give a misleading impression.  Strong lines on the map suggest continuous existence on analogy with rapid transit lines, but these infrequent and short-span lines don't exist most of the time. They are probably not there when you need them.

All that, of course, is part of the case for transit maps that reflect frequency/span categories, both emphasising frequent and long-span services and specifically de-emphasising ephemeral ones like peak-only or night-only services.

But there's a more specific issue with spider maps or "buses from here" maps.  They promote single-seat rides while concealing connection opportunities.  More generally, they discourage people from discovering how to navigate the complete network.

There are contexts where this is fine.  At an outer suburban station where the only bus services are local circulators and links to a few nearby suburbs, the "spider map" allows the customer to see the complete local network without having to find it in a massive map of the whole system.

But there's a different way to organize mapping at stops/stations that might be both more truthful and would help people see more clearly (a) the structure of frequent services that are easy to use even with connections and (b) the necessary detail for all services in a local area.  That would be to provide two maps:

  • A Frequent Network map for the entire city (or if the city is as big as London, maybe a large subarea of the city).   This map would have a prominent "you are here" mark, but its function would to say "here's everywhere you can go from here, on service that's available right now."  (You could simplify this map by deleting some Frequent services that would not conceivably be useful on any possible trip from "here," but if you think broadly there usually aren't many of those.)  This map would also convey a very useful subliminal message: "here is where you are in your city, and in your network."   At least for spatial navigators, this map has a useful long-term value in helping people internalize the network so that they can navigate it more freely and spontaneously in the future. 
  • A local area map, showing all routes emanating from "here" (or perhaps all routes with those from "here" highlighted) but just out to a radius of several km.  The ideal radius is the distance beyond which you should usually be looking for rapid line, possibly with a connection, rather than a local bus line from "here."  The local area map should be strongly coded to highlight Frequent services and downplay peak-only and other short-span services. 

In both cases, lines exiting the map area should be labelled at the edge with any more distant destinations that you would logically use that line, from "here," to reach.  (That may not be all the places the line goes.)

This approach would not lead the customer as precisely as a spider map or "buses from here" map does, but nor would it mislead the customer as much as those maps can sometimes do.  Sometimes, the fastest way to get from here to there involves making a connection, but the connection may be very easy and very frequent, and we should resist mapping styles that conceal those opportunities. 

That's my instinct, but maybe it's just my prejudice.  What do you think?



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.

chicago: living the grid

If you visit Chicago, and a local friend tells you to meet her at the Western "L" station, then either (a) she's not really your friend or (b) she isn't as local as she claims.  There are five stations called Western in the Chicago rapid transit network:

Five westerns

These duplicate names arise from naming stations solely after a cross street, without reference to the street or path the rail line is following.

But the secret language of Chicago transit desires is even more subtle.  If your friend tells you to meet her at Western Brown Line station, she's probably a local, but if she directs you to Western Blue Line station, you're still in trouble.  As you can see above, there are two.  This one is the more scenic, but note the absence of any signage that might distinguish it from the other one:


Although there are a small handful of duplicate station names in other New World gridded cities (one pair in Buenos Aires, four pairs in Cleveland, two pairs in Philadelphia), New York City is the only system I know of where you'll see the same naming style used in force. 

Nyc 23 st

Few agencies, however, would give the same name to two stations on the same line, as Chicago does.  Toronto, one of the few big cities that's as relentlessly gridded as Chicago, is obviously at pains to avoid it.  Their U-shaped north-south subway line crosses many main streets twice, and in each case they append "West" to the name of the more westerly of the two. 

Los Angeles, like Chicago, has a long Western Avenue that has two stations where different branches of a rail line cross it.  But they didn't call both stations "Western."  They used the full co-ordinates:  "Wilshire/Western" as opposed to "Hollywood/Western."

How do Chicagoans cope with all these duplicate names, even on the same line? No big deal, says Jeff Busby, a Chicago-sourced transit planner now at Vancouver's TransLink:

In partial answer to your question, I would observe that the grid is an overriding organizing element for Chicagoans.  Everyone knows that State and Madison is 0N/S & 0E/W and coordinates are powerful for knowing where you are and how to get somewhere else.  Station platform signs give the N/S & E/W coordinates.  Station names that reinforce their location in the grid are valuable.  I know that Ashland is 1600W and Western is 2400W so that new restaurant I’ve never been to at 2200W is probably closer to the Western station.

To minimize clutter on the system map, stations are generally named for the arterial that crosses perpendicular to the rail line, but in the local language (and the on-board announcements) they are known by both cross streets. For example, the Loop stations are known as State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Randolph/Wabash, Library-State/Van Buren, etc even though they are abbreviated on maps as State, Clark, Randolph and Library.

In this sense, having five "Western" stations is not as confusing at it might seem.  First, it immediately orients you to where they are — on Western Avenue, accessible by the 49-Western bus that travels from Berwyn (5300N) south to 79th (7900S), and a local suggesting that you meet at the “Western L station” would probably use a different term (from North to South):

  • Western (Brown Line) – Lincoln Square (after the neighborhood)
  • Western (O’Hare Blue Line) – Western/Milwaukee
  • Western (Forest Park Blue Line) – Western/Congress (or Eisenhower)
  • Western (Pink Line) – Western/Cermak
  • Western (Orange Line) – Probably Western – Orange Line as it’s not on a major E/W arterial

Indeed, the near universal repetition of grid number coordinates is a striking thing in Chicago.  You'll find them on every streetsign and every platform station name sign.


So it really is possible to ignore all the street names and navigate a city of co-ordinates, much as you would do in Utah cities where you'll encounter street names like "7200 South Street". 

Unique features of a transit system are often keys to the spirit of the city.  Grids were fundamental to the rapid settlement of the midwest and west, so for Chicago — a city built on commerce to and from those regions — the strong grid is an expression of the city's economic might.  All cities have street networks, but few cities attach such strong symbolic value to the nature of their street network, or celebrate it so explicitly. 

And its certainly true that if you ignore the street names and embrace Chicago's numerical grid, there's never any doubt where you are, but of course that implies a sense of "where" that is itself grid-defined.  I'm sure Parisians take pride in the complete gridlessness of their city, and would say that "Place de la Bastille" is a much more satisfying answer to the question "where?" than any grid coordinates would be.  But then, Paris wasn't built to conquer a frontier.