Cameron Booth is a seasoned graphic designer. In his spare time he also edits transitmaps.tumblr.com, the web's finest emporium for bus maps, subway diagrams, train network maps and more. We're enormous fans of his site and wanted to pin him down on a subject that's close to our own hearts: what makes a good transit map?
HERE Three Sixty: Cameron, tell us. What's your favourite transit map? And what makes it so good?
Cameron Booth: One of my all time favourite transit maps is this one that was used in Stuttgart, Germany c. 2000. Unusually, it chooses to represent the city's network on an isometric grid (using 30-degree angles almost exclusively), rather than the more usual orthogonal method, which uses any multiple of 45 degrees.
An example of an orthogonal map
The effect is striking, accentuated by the three-dimensional treatment given to the Hauptbahnhof and its distinctive tower in the middle of the map. For me, this diagram ticks all the boxes:
- It's clear and easy to understand. Routes are easily traceable from one end to the other, interchanges and termini are clearly denoted, icons for points of interest are simple and unmistakeable, and the legend is simple and concise.
- All of the labels on the diagram are set horizontally, which aids quick reading and comprehension, as well as looking neater than angled labels. The unusual isometric viewpoint helps a lot here, as it allows station names to nest next to the route line nicely, without ever being in danger of clashing with it.
- It has a look that is uniquely its own, rather than being yet another Tube Map clone. I absolutely love transit maps that have a sense of place about them: a map that could only ever belong to one city, and this is one of them.
- To top it all off, it's also absolutely beautiful to look out. While conveying information is a transit map's most important function, aesthetics play a huge part as well. I h4ly believe that transit maps play a hugely important part in the public's initial perception of a transit system: if the map is easy to use and beautiful to look at, then it will encourage people to use the system. Conversely, if the map is poorly designed and difficult to comprehend, then that's going to have a negative effect on users.
Transit maps need to be instantly comprehensible. What does that force on the design?
CB: A strong informational hierarchy is an absolute necessity. By that, I mean that the most important elements of the map should be immediately and intuitively obvious.
Transfer/interchange stations need to be clearly shown — working out where to interchange with other services is always one of the biggest challenges faced by transit users.
Route termini should be clearly marked, especially if trains or buses refer to those endpoints on their signboards (e.g., Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters). Here, the Paris Metro map does a better job than the London Tube map, for example, as it makes the station name bolder and shows the route numbers that terminate there.
If there's more than mode of transportation shown, then the pre-eminent one needs to stand out the most to make it easiest to find. A good example of this is would be a subway map that also shows connecting commuter rail, bus and ferry connections: the subway needs to be shown as the most important part of the map, and each other service should be indicated in descending order of importance with progressively thinner route lines/smaller labels, and so on.
We're all about the digital at HERE, but of course, transit maps need to also be physical objects like maps, stop signs and more. Is digital mapping enabling or complicating the ability for cities to get people around? In what ways?
CB: Well, almost everyone has access to a map in one form or another right in their pocket these days. Be it a smartphone or tablet, information is right at our fingertips wherever we go. It's not always accurate though, and I think sometimes people put a little too much trust in their device, rather than trying to work things out for themselves. A small screen isn't always the best way to understand how transit in a city pieces together: a decent paper map is a lot easier (for me, at least) to pore over and really understand how things work.
Innovations like the new touch screen subway map kiosks in New York City are a hint of things to come: the future holds maps that update dynamically based on the time of day, that keep you updated about track maintenance that might affect your trip, or provide detailed information about transfers. Digital mapping and live data feeds promise a much more dynamic, fluid look at transit than a static paper map can ever provide — but I don't think we're quite there yet.