Quick Redesign: Denver RTD Light Rail Isometric Map

Way back when, I posted a quick sketch of an concept Denver RTD light rail map that used 30-degree lines to give an isometric appearance to the map, based on the amazing Stuttgart U- and S-Bahn map, c. 2000. 

Now that I’ve finished with my “Highways of the USA" project, I’ve been able to find a few hours to turn that sketch into something a little more more finished. I didn’t want to spend too long on the map – doing it more as a light and fun "warm up" piece, rather than any serious finished article. So it’s a little rough around the edges, but works nicely as a proof of concept.

The interesting thing about an isometric map like this is that it’s actually easier to work with skewed and rotated rectangles for the line routes than the usual stroked paths: this is because the strokes won’t skew properly to give the required 30-degree end to a route line (an isometric map only uses angles that are 30 degrees above and below the horizontal).

While I feel that this treatment works well for the existing Denver rail system, further exploration revealed that it is utterly inappropriate for the near-future of all the FasTracks extensions. The I-225 line would take up way too much space with stations spaced too far apart if the isometric grid was adhered to, and the proliferation of commuter rail routes out of Union Station is almost impossible to convey with only a couple of viable angle options to work with. Any deviation away from the required 30-degree angles spoils the isometric illusion, but would almost certainly be necessary to fit some parts of the network together.

In short, a fun little design exercise that looks pretty nifty, but would be a dead end in the development of a “future-proof” map for Denver. 

Unofficial Future Map: Metro Denver Rapid Transit by Steve Boland

Long-time readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of Denver’s current light rail map (April 2013, 2 stars). And it seems that I’m not the only one, as Steve Boland of San Francisco Cityscape has turned his hand to designing a new map. We’ve featured his excellent Bay Area Rapid Transit map previously (Feb. 2013, 4.5 stars).

His Denver map includes all the FasTracks extensions — light rail along I-225 through Aurora, BRT lanes on US 36 to Boulder and new commuter rail lines to all points north, including a line out to Denver International Airport (finally!). Interestingly, he’s chosen to color-code the services by corridor, rather than by route designation, which actually works quite nicely and simplifies the map in the dense downtown core. The map also makes the peak-hour only nature of the “C” and “F” light rail routes visually obvious on the map by adding a white stroke to their route line: a nice usability touch.

Technically, the map is infinitely better drawn than the official one: no wobbly route lines here! I do miss the sweeping arc that the light rail lines make from Auraria West around to Union Station — I always felt that if it was drawn better, it could be the defining visual “hook” of the official map — but the squared off look does fit in well with the overall aesthetics of this map.

Personally, I find the kink in the “G” line at Aurora a little visually distracting in such a clean diagram, but Steve tells me he really wanted to show how the line leaves the I-225 corridor at that point. As he consistently labels all the main roads that transit travels along on the map, this is probably a fair point.

An oddity: without knowing how all the new lines will fit into RTD’s fare structure, the map has to constrain that information to the currently existing parts of the system — which actually highlights the new parts rather nicely.

Our rating: That’s much better! Clean, crisp, functional informational design that builds excitement for the future of transit in Denver. Four stars.

4 Stars!

(Source: sfcityscape website — GIF)

From The Field - More Denver Distortion

Another weirdly squashed map of Denver’s light rail system: this time compressed horizontally. Would it have killed them to make the sign a little wider?

Taken at the 18th & California station.

A Better Denver RTD Strip Map?

People have already asked me what I’d do to make the Denver RTD strip map better. Well, here’s what I’ve come up with in five minutes flat. Even from this quick little “art director’s sketch”, I’m pretty certain that this concept would work better than the current iteration.

Once a transit system is past a certain size or complexity, some level of abstraction on these narrow oddly-shaped strip maps is a necessity. Once the rider is actually on the train, the most important information that they need is "how many stops until I get off/change trains", not the physical reality of the system. Extraneous information like fare zones and street grids can be stripped out, leaving only the vital information behind.

  1. Camera: iPhone 5
  2. Aperture: f/2.4
  3. Exposure: 1/30th
  4. Focal Length: 4mm

Lessons in how NOT to adapt your map to a different shape, Denver edition

When I reviewed the new West Line Denver LTD light rail map (April 2013, 2 stars), I wondered how the new landscape format would work on trains and on station fittings. Well, one half of that question has been answered: this is what it looks like on the trains, and it ain’t pretty.

Basically, they’ve just taken the map and compressed it vertically to squeeze it into the allocated space. The loop around the city, which was already a pretty poor excuse for a circle, has now become a weirdly distorted oval, and all the inaccuracies where routes run concurrently have been magnified. Even in this angled photo, you can see huge differences in the spacing between the C, D, E, F, and H lines, especially between the I-25 & Broadway and Alameda stations.

The format also leads to huge amounts of empty, wasted space and teeny-tiny labels for the stations: not exactly useful. I will say that the map looks a lot better without the grey background and street grid (which would probably just look ridiculous in this horribly distorted version, anyway).

P.S. How do you make this map better? Here’s what I came up with in five minutes.

(Source: Denver Urbanism via BeyondDC)

Official Map Update: Denver RTD Light Rail West Line

Transit Maps reviewed Denver’s light rail map way back in October 2011. We weren’t too impressed with it then, and nothing much has changed with this new edition that marks today’s opening of the new (aqua) West Line out to Golden.

The map itself has had to change orientation from portrait to landscape to fit the new route in, which raises the question of how it’s going to fit into existing fittings on trains and stations. The new format also seems to make a lot of the labels — especially those on the underlying street grid — very small and hard to read.

The route lines on the map are still very poorly dawn. Lines that run parallel to each other appear to have been drawn individually, rather than offsetting a master line with the tools available in most illustration software to ensure accuracy (Hint: in Illustrator, this would be the Object > Path > Offset Path command). As a result, there’s some very ugly and inconsistent gaps between routes in places. The curves are also generally badly drawn: the loop around the city would look so much better as a proper circular arc, while the sudden jog in the West Line at Federal Center looks positively dangerous for riders!

Finally, it looks as if the designer forgot to group all the roads together before reducing their opacity: it looks especially horrid where I-25 and I-225 intersect.

This is very much an interim map: the RTD’s FasTracks program is going to expand the passenger rail system in Denver hugely in the next few years — both light rail and commuter rail. However, that still doesn’t excuse sloppy work like this. 

Our rating: Nothing’s really changed since last time in terms of execution or quality. Still two stars.

2 Stars

(Source: Official RTD website)

Historical Map: Lines of the Denver City Tramway, 1913

While we applaud the Denver Regional Transportation District’s current FasTracks program, which is rapidly building a comprehensive light rail and commuter rail system in the Mile High City, it’s sobering to look at a map like this and realise that 100 years ago, Denver already had a comprehensive transit system. It’s a story repeated across America — Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Minneapolis/St. Paul and more.

(Source: University of Texas Libraries Map Collection)

  1. Camera: i2s Digibook Scanner Suprascan A0 10000 RGB

Which Do You Prefer?

Starting a new project - a redesign of the Denver RTD light rail map - and here’s a very initial screenshot of progress so far. Two options shown for the downtown loop: the top one has the lines crossing over each other from the Theatre District station down to California Street, while the bottom one has the lines “peeling” down to California Street. Which do you like best?

Official Map: Denver RTD Light Rail

Here’s a transit map that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is a rectilinear diagram or a geographically accurate map, and it ends up paying a price for that indecision. Overlaying the routes on a city-wide street grid can work well (see the Barcelona map posted previously), but here it seems to force the routes to be subservient to their geography, rather than the other way around. The labelling of the roads is also far too small to be really useful, and they often struggle to stand out from the oppressive grey background the map is placed on. There’s also some odd design choices, like placing the routes on the south-eastern leg out of alphabetical order: “H”, “E” and “F”, when it would be very easy to run the blue “H” line to the right of the red “F” line and maintain the correct order.

Have we been there? I’ve been to Denver, but haven’t ridden the train.

What we like: A nice, distinctive transfer station symbol works well and is a different approach to most other transit maps.

What we don’t like: A lack of craftsmanship in the drawing of the route lines. Spacing between the lines varies widely and curves are very uneven, creating a very slip-shod feel to the map. Extremely cramped downtown area and heavy-handed treatment of the free mall transfer bus service. Legend and fare boxes look very tacked on.

Our rating: It is clear and easy to understand, just unexciting and technically poor. Needs to evoke “Denver” a lot more to be truly successful. Two stars.

2 Stars

(Source: Official RTD site)