RMTransit, a transit enthusiast YouTube channel, looks at some of the shortcomings of transit maps: how maps tend to fail at things like mode (tram vs. subway) or frequency. Very much from a rider perspective rather than from the perspective of map design.
Complaints that London’s Tube map has gotten too complicated are not new. So it’s not too surprising that Transport for London’s decision to add Thameslink rail services to the Tube map as of next month—temporarily, as a means of illustrating alternative travel options in the age of social distancing—is generating some heat. Thameslink already appears on TfL’s Tube and Rail map, but adding it to the Tube map proper is in some quarters seen as the final straw. Jonn Elledge at On London:
Once a design classic, the map has been ugly, and getting uglier, for a while. The rot started to set in with the baffling decision to show the fare zones using a series of irregular grey polygons that make it look like the familiar shape of the Tube network had been painted against the backdrop of the sort of artwork you’d find lining the corridors of a Gatwick Airport hotel sometime in the late 1980s.
But the bigger problem is that Transport for London have thrown more and more services onto the map without any apparent consideration for what it might need to change in order to accommodate them. Most of the map is still given over to the northern half of London, even though a growing share of the services it shows (the Overground, Tramlink, now Thameslink) are south of the river.
The new map isn’t up on the TfL site yet, but can be seen here.
Previously: Has the Tube Map Become Too Complicated?
New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has released a beta of a new digital subway map that aims to solve several problems at once. It shows train positions in real time and provides service bulletins in a single location. It also promises, says Fast Company’s Mark Wilson, to bridge the long-standing (and often acrimonious) divide between geographically accurate transit maps (Hertz) and diagrammatic network diagrams (Vignelli).
Here’s a video about how the new digital map came to be:
On Transit Maps, Cameron Booth has some criticisms of the map and its approach. “The main selling point of this map is that it has the clarity of a diagram but the fidelity of a geographical map—‘The best of both worlds!’ the articles happily proclaimed this morning—but the reality is more like ‘Jack of all trades; master of none.’ As much as I try, I simply can’t see any real benefit to this approach.”
Another point Booth makes, and I can confirm, is that the map isn’t just slow; it’s profoundly slow. On Safari it makes my current-generation, eight-core Core i7 iMac with 40 GB of RAM and a Radeon Pro 5500 XT feel like a snail; it’s a little better on Chrome, and on my third-generation iPad Air, but it’s still slow and janky and not very pleasant to use. Well, it’s a beta. But a beta that crawls on hardware faster than what most people own is, I’d gently suggest, not ready for release.
Mark Ovenden has made a career of publishing books about transportation systems and their maps that are both comprehensive and copiously illustrated. These include books about transit maps, railway maps and airline maps, as well as books about specific transit systems like the London Underground and the Paris Metro.
His latest, Underground Cities (Frances Lincoln, 22 Sep), is in some ways a natural progression from his past work: in the introduction he muses on the link between transit geekery and wondering about “what else lies down there beyond the walls” (p. 6). But in other ways this is quite a different book.
Harry Beck’s original London tube map was inspired by circuit diagrams, so it’s only fitting that TrainTrackr’s tracking maps showing the real-time positions of trains on the London Underground and Boston MBTA are literally circuit boards, using LEDs to indicate train positions. (They also have an LED map showing rainfall data in the British Isles.) Prices range from £99 to £249 (US$149 to $315). [Mapping London]
Rail Map Online has been around since 2013 or so, but it only came to my attention recently. It’s an interactive map of every rail line and station that has ever existed in Great Britain and Ireland, with U.S. rail lines in the pipeline. Keep in mind that it’s a hobby project: “The U.K. map is mostly finished, although there’s always room for improvement. The U.S. map is a work in progress, and will take many years to complete.” [Tim Dunn]
Michael Hertz, whose design firm created the map of the New York City subway that in 1979 replaced a controversial (though critically acclaimed) design by Massimo Vignelli—a map that today’s map design largely follows—died earlier this month at the age of 87, the New York Times reports. See also BBC News, CNN, NBC New York, the New York Post—that’s rather a lot of attention.
That 1979 map that has been critiqued, fulminated against and re-imagined over and over again has nonetheless managed to become iconic; however much the map offended various design aesthetics, as the Times obituary (and previous coverage) shows, it was created with care and purpose: the curves were deliberate, the references to aboveground landmarks were deliberate. It was a team effort, but the Times obit had this interesting item about who should get the credit:
There has been some sniping over the years as to who deserves credit for the 1979 map, with Mr. Hertz taking exception whenever Mr. Tauranac1 was identified as “chief designer” or given some similar title.
“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz told The New York Times in 2012. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”
In 2004, the Long Island newspaper Newsday asked Tom Kelly, then the spokesman for the M.T.A., about who did what.
“The best thing I could probably tell you is to quote my sainted mother: ‘Success has many fathers,’” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s not to disparage any work that anybody else put into the map. But, in all honesty, it’s Mike Hertz that did all the basic design and implementation of it. In all fairness, the father of this map, as far as we’re concerned, is Mike Hertz.”
The 1979 map isn’t quite the same as the current version. Transit Maps posted a copy in 2015, and has this to say about it: “It’s funny how we call this the ‘same’ map as today’s version, because there’s a lot of differences, both big and small. The Beck-style tick marks for local stations as mentioned above, no Staten Island inset, the biggest legend box I’ve ever seen, the colours used for water and parkland … the list goes on!”
James Niehues is legendary for his pictorial maps of ski resorts—a collection of them was published last year—so it’s no surprise that when Amtrak approached him to create a route map for their on-train magazine, The National, he remained true to his particular idiom, “taking a few liberties to highlight the country’s major ski regions—the Great Plains are shrunken, while the Rockies loom large. ‘I hope nobody takes it too seriously,’ he cautions.”
Previously: Book of Niehues Ski Resort Art Now Available; Crowdfunding a Book of James Niehues’s Ski Resort Art; A Video Profile of James Niehues, Ski Resort Map Artist; James Niehues Passes the Torch; James Niehues’s Ski Resort Maps; James Niehues Profile.
On the left, Deutsche Bahn’s official network map of all Intercity and Intercity Express routes in Germany (PDF). On the right, a much more ambitious map of said network by Reddit user theflyingindonesian. Cameron Booth much prefers the unofficial map: while the official map is “incredibly average” (a putdown I will have to make a point of remembering), the unofficial map is “a major upgrade” that is “infinitely superior” to the official map. “I particularly like the dead straight trajectory of the lines from Hamburg down to Fulda, and the clear treatment of the potentially difficult and convoluted Rhine-Ruhr area. I also like the way that the routes for trains that pass through major stations get a ghosted-back line to link the routes across the (sometimes very large) station rectangles.” I know which one I’d rather spend a long time staring at.
Sleeper trains are making something of a comeback, with services being restored and expanded after years of cutbacks, at least in Europe. In what may not be a coincidence, Jug Cerović has created Night Trains, a collection of maps of overnight train services around the world, done in his usual, standardized schematic transit network design language. Prints are available.
There have been a lot of Beck-style maps—maps done in the style of the London underground map. This one’s a bit meta. Arturs D., a student living in London, has created a map of the present-day London underground using Harry Beck’s original style. The current TfL network map (PDF) is, of course, a Beck-type diagram, but there have been a lot of changes to the official map since 1933. It’s also a lot more complicated. Arturs’s map, which limits itself to the Tube proper, reminds us just how many changes there have been. [Mapping London]
London’s Tube map is buckling under its own weight: the latest version includes a suburban line to Reading, with more additions coming in the future. CityLab looks at the concerns that the Tube map has become too complex and unwieldy to be used, particularly by people unfamiliar with the city.
The New York Times does a deep dive into New York’s current subway map: its design choices, its history, its quirks. It’s more an animated slideshow than interactive map: each step takes us along a route, bouncing up and down (for example) where you’d expect to walk. It’s also completely devoid of any context, particularly the controversies around this very map’s design. People have been agitated about New York’s subway map, and have been reimagining and rethinking it, for decades.
Yes, I've seen this NY Times subway infographic piece. It's… odd. Seems to excuse bad design with some magical hand waves and expect us to believe this is really the best map that could be made.https://t.co/5xjiAK9EQz
— Transit Maps (@transitmap) December 2, 2019
That said, even a naïve look at the status quo isn’t without value, especially since the status quo is rarely looked at on its own terms, but rather in the context of tearing it up and coming up with something new and better.
Ottawa’s new light rail line opened to the public last month, more than a year overdue, and this week the bus routes change to account for that fact. The new system network map (downtown inset above) strongly resembles the map released last year, which showed what the bus routes would have been had the LRT opened back then, somewhat less late, but there are some subtle changes here and there.
Meanwhile, planning is under way for the next stage of LRT construction. The City of Ottawa has an interactive map showing where the new (and existing) lines will be going: it’s a track network map that shows every crossover and platform, and goes a long way toward satisfying my curiosity.
John Tauranac is having second thoughts. Tauranac is the former MTA map designer whose committee replaced Massimo Vignelli’s diagrammatic subway map with a more geographical one in 1979; that map, with modifications and updates, is still in use today. He now thinks the map needs an overhaul, according to the New York Post, and at 80 he thinks he’s the one to do it. The Post article includes some of his suggestions; the MTA is, shall we say, not eager for his help.
(Tauranac has been active on this file for a while: he released his own subway map in 2008: it’s a folded map that is geographical on one side and diagrammatic on the other. It seems to be out of print, but I still have a copy in my files.)
And a perusal of my own archives will tell you that the project to reimagine and rethink the New York subway map has been going on a very long time. Last May Jun Seong Ahn posted a rethinking of the subway map—not as the usual poster, but as a wide horizontal map posted above the heads of commuters, as you commonly see in other cities:
Debates about the New York subway map generally involve posters on trains and in stations—flat, paper, static maps. Meanwhile the MTA is moving to digital displays over the next few years, which may afford train and station maps the opportunity to be as dynamic and changing as the maps on riders’ phones. So far, though, the maps are low-resolution and static.
Previously: New York Subway Maps; Tauranac’s New York Subway Map; Mark Ovenden: The French (Re-)Connection; A Talk About Designing the New York Subway Map on Dec. 7; Debating the New York Subway Map; New York Subway Line Posters; Anthony Denaro’s Map of All of NYC’s Transit; New York Subway Track Map.