Transit System Maps Still Matter

A slice of our system map for AC Transit.

A slice of our system map for AC Transit.

As transit information tools have gotten better, some transit agencies have stopped offering a system map to the public.  Often, a website offers me trip planning software and route by route timetables, but not a map.  If it’s there, it’s often difficult to find.

We think system maps are essential.  They’re not just for everyday navigation.  They’re for exploration and understanding.  Some people prefer narrative directions, but many people are spatial navigators, and they need maps.  They’ll understand details only if they can see the big picture.

Another way to think about system maps is that they show you where they could go, and how.  They give you a sense of possibility.  (It’s the informational dimension of access to opportunity.)  Maps also show visually how different services work together.  Finally, good system maps help people make better decisions about where to locate, or even where to build things.

One of our most fun projects this year was a new system map for AC Transit in greater Oakland, California.  You can see the whole thing, including its legend, here.  (To be fair, we’re not the only people who do these. Our friends at CHK America do them, and I also love the work of the European designer Jug Cerovic.)

The style of this map is very similar to that of the maps that we’ve always used in our planning studies.  The key is the visual hierarchy that makes frequent lines more prominent than other lines, and makes all-day lines more prominent than peak-only lines.  (In older standard mapping styles in this region, peak-only express lines were often the brightest red, even though they don’t exist the vast majority of the time. It was very confusing.)

As transit planners, we use this style for all of the maps that appear in our studies.  In fact, red=frequent in absolutely everything we do, whether it’s a map, a chart, a planning game toy, or a pen used to draw routes inside a course or workshop.

We take pride in having been among the first to bang this drum.  I was making the case back the 2000s (really, in the 90s) and there’s a chapter on it in my book.

We’re excited to be in the business of public-facing system maps.  They don’t have to be this precise; they can be done at various levels of design at various costs.

But if a system map doesn’t exist, people can’t understand all that your transit system can do.

Helsinki: A Transit Map by Jug Cerovic

A while back I did a post on the subway maps of the Paris-based Serbian designer Jug Cerovic.  His style is to look for distinguishing features in the geometry of the network structure, and highlight these to give a sense of order.

He has a new one of Helsinki …


… but the cool thing is not just the map but his explanation of his design process, which I highly recommend.


The Pleasure of Track Maps

If you’ve never seen a subway track map, I suggest you look at this one, for New York, by “radical cartographer” Andrew Lynch. Most track diagrams are not to scale, and look like they’re meant to make to make sense only to insiders.  But this one is beautiful.
nyc track map b



What’s more, it’s accurate in geographic scale, though of course the separation of tracks can’t be on the same scale as the network.  Still, New York’s subway is both huge and full of details, so this is no mean feat.  Only 22 insets were required, to zoom in on tricky segments.

Gazing at a good track map can give you an appreciation for the heroics involved in moving trains around in this limited infrastructure. Switches and extra tracks are very expensive underground, which is why they are never where you need them to handle a particular incident.  This, for example, is why a track closure at one station may continue through several stations nearby.

Gaze at this piece of the Bronx, and marvel at what a train would have to do to get from Jerome Yard to a station on the Orange (B+D) line.  I presume they don’t have to do this very often, but in a pinch, they can.

nyc track map a

I spent a delighted hour with it.

Luxembourg: A New Official Frequency-based Map

Maps that help people see which services are coming soon are remarkably rare in Europe, for a variety of complex reasons.  Some European systems have such high frequency overall that it may seem unnecessary, but there are usually still significant frequency contrasts that matter.

luxemburg map jug cerovic

Now, there’s a great example out of Luxembourg.  The Paris-based Serbian designer Jug Cerovic has been featured here before, for his interest in making networks clearer by emphasizing a core geometric idea.  Not just for beauty, but as a way of combatting the mental overload that complex maps can cause.

Luxembourg’s transit system has just rolled out an official network map by Cerovic.  It highlights frequency with wide lines, including such details as how wide frequent lines split into narrow infrequent ones.  (Detailed PDF is here.)


Obviously this is a diagram, seeking network clarity rather than precise fit with local geography. The core geometric idea is the pentagon, a feature of the Luxembourg CBD that he uses, but not to excess, in arranging patterns. He explains his design process here.

UPDATE:  For comparison, this was the previous map. (H/t @ParadiseOxford)

Luxembourg map old

Portland: New Transit Map Underscores Frequent Network

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog. He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For years on this blog and in our projects, we've stressed the importance of highlighting and emphasizing transit agencies' Frequent Networks on customer information of all kinds.  Portland's agency TriMet has traditionally been a best practice example here, given their extensive Frequent Network branding down to the individual stop level, but curiously, their system map has not embraced this idea so wholeheartedly. Today, TriMet's new system map changes that, introducing a cleaner, more readable map, which does a much better job of highlighting the agency's premier bus services. 

Let's compare the two, starting with the old map that has just been retired:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.57 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (early 2015)

This Southeast Portland shows the core of the city's Frequent Network. The Frequent Network is symbolized with a thicker line weight, but every line still has its own individual color, presumably to make it easier to trace each individual line across the network. However, the effect of this choice distracts from the important information contained in the line weight property, because the wide diversity of bright colors climbs to the top of the visual hierarchy, though the colors communicate nothing about the nature of the service on each line. 

The legibility of the map is not aided by the large number of points of interest shown, with both text and symbols frequent overlapping the most important features (the transit routes). TriMet's old map was certainly not a bad transit map by any means, and deserves enormous credit for being one of the first to explicitly show frequency at all, but in the years since, many of TriMet's peer agencies around the country have focused even more heavily on frequency to produce truly useful and innovative maps.

Now compare the image above with the same area of the new map:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.38 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (late 2015)
This is a map that truly focuses on communicating the usefulness of the transit routes. The most important factor for usefulness is frequency, which is obscured when every line on the map is the same color, or a different color, or colored by a less important attribute, like which corner of the city it serves. 
Here, weight and color are both deployed to differentiate the Frequent Network (heavy, dark blue) from other less frequent routes, but without the riot of color of the older map. When we compare the legends of each, the difference is subtle, but the when deployed on the map, the difference is dramatic.
TriMet Map ComparisonThis new map makes one thing very apparent: anywhere near a thick, dark blue line, a bus is always coming soon.
It is also a clearer, more traceable map! Where the old version employed the common convention of using color to distinguish routes and make it easy to tell where they travel across the city, the new map uses line displacement and simplification in a much more sophisticated manner to accomplish the same task.
For example, examine the path of the 10-Harold: on the old map, its line appears to end at Hawthorne and 12th, where it joins the 14-Hawthorne to head into downtown (it's actually beneath the 14's line, if you look closely). With the new map, it is much clearer that this route overlaps with the 14 in this segment, just by the way in which the two lines have been separated from one another. Now that color is now longer necessary to distinguish each route, it can be used for a more important purpose: showing frequency.
Apart from the increased focus on frequency, this map also succeeds by reducing the amount of non-transit information, with fewer points of interest labeled. Those that are present have symbols and labels drawn with a brown color much closer to that of the map's background, reducing the effect of collisions with transit features, and diminishing the level of visual "noise" competing with the transit network structure for the reader's attention.
It's fantastic to see an agency like TriMet continuing to work to improve its customer information. Even in the age of real-time data and mobile trip planning, a transit agency's map is often the only place where the entire system is documented in a way that an average person can understand. City transit networks are complex, and the best maps, like TriMet's, are designed to reduce that complexity, focusing on the most important aspects of the service for the people who ride it. 

Can Design Learn from the New Zealand Flag Debate?

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag.  National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes.  Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1.  One or many ideas?  Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2.  Fashionable or enduring?  Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds.  Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:


The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag.   (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)

The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity.  National  imagery rarely uses the flag's colors.  Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example.  Increasingly, though, the government uses black.  The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:


This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.  

If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond.  It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the  tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).


Sports and tree-hugging in one image!  This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum.  It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:


The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50.  Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while.  So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.

So how has the debate gone?  Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:


It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru.  (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)  

When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones?  Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy.  For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.  

But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:


… at which point, all hell broke loose.  There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas.  A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image.  If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can.  (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time.  This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant?  How is this better than the simple silver fern on black?  Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.  If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:




Fortunately, they didn't.  You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point.  A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject  any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment.   The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator.  None of the finalists displays this.  

How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.  


And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.  

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?  

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?

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.  

Transitmix continues its development

By Evan Landman. 

Last summer, we covered an exciting new transit planning tool called Transitmix. Transitmix grew out of a Code for America project that sought to create a web-based tool to automate much of the complex yet mundane work that goes on in the background during transit planning. Cost estimation, line measurement, population and employment coverage analysis, are all examples of tasks that require time and effort such that they cannot all be carried out in real time during a planning meeting or workshop.

The team at Transitmix reached out to transit planners all over the county (including our firm), learning what did and didn't work about current practices and workflows. They created a beta version of a simple online tool that hinted at what might be possible. Finally, last week, Transitmix released a new video announcing the impending release of the professional version of the application, with critical features that offer the promise of a dramatically simpler, more open, and more easily understood transit planning tool.

Dynamic demographic and employment mapping and analysis, and side-by-side network and route comparisons are the main new features implemented here, to go along with the live updated costing, and deeply configurable frequency, span, and cost parameters the older version already includes. Transitmix continues to impress, creating a tool that simplifies and demystifies procedures that are too often known only to practitioners. We look forward to getting our hands on the full-featured product.

nearmap brings its high-resolution aerial imagery to the US

Understanding and decisionmaking in transit planning requires many inputs. These include agency staff expertise, all sorts of public input, performance and operational data on costs and ridership, and an array of supporting demographic information. However, when it comes down to questions of rights-and-lefts, at the lowest level of planning altitude, one source of information is critical: aerial photography. 

Transit design processes frequently involve very detailed questions that not everyone at the table has personal experience with. These sorts of questions:

  • Is the traffic median of this boulevard wide enough for the bus to use to make an uncontrolled turn without blocking traffic?
  • Is there a place at this intersection where we could locate a new stop?
  • Can pedestrians cross this road? 
  • Have people created their own use paths to shorten their walk from a subdivision out to the bus stop? 
  • Can a bus make this turn?

These small issues can have a big impact if they require substantial redesign (for example, finding a new turnaround), so it is important to get as much right as possible during design. To do this, we rely on aerial and satellite photos. Sometimes very high-resolution imagery is available from local governments, but more often we turn to Google Earth, due to its speed and ease of navigation. However, Google Earth is a limited tool – its images range in quality from new and crisp to dim and out of date. 

Nearmap is an alternative to Google Earth that has grown more and more impressive. Initially confined to Australia and New Zealand (I used it all the time when I lived there), it now includes all large US cities. The site's best feature is the very recent, aerial high-resolution imagery it offers, but it also has nice image capture and layer overlay tools, all in-browser. 

Google Earth has long been a critical tool because of its position between true GIS, with its steep learning curve, and consumer maps like Google Maps. However, while some nice features have been added over the years, the software is still much the same as it was back in 2005. Products like Nearmap, as well as the host of applications built on platforms like Mapbox, OpenLayers and Leaflet, are important because they offer some of the flexibility of GIS (importing layers, creating features), with the familiar toolset of web map navigation that most people are now familiar with.

Maps have always been a powerful tool. In a planning process, better maps can help enable better decisions to be made.




Updated 30 Dec 2014 to clarify that Nearmap is aerial, not satellite, which is part of why it's so sharp!