New Official Map: MBTA Rapid Transit, Based On Winning Contest Entry

First sightings are coming in of Boston’s new rapid transit map being deployed on trains and stations, and prints are also available from MBTAgifts.com. For now, the map on the actual MBTA website is still the previous version.

The blurb about the map on MBTAgifts.com says:

The 2014 MBTA rapid transit map was the result of an international competition for designs. This map is based on the winning submission and has been complete[ly] redrawn and updated by Central Planning Transportation Staff for the MBTA.

Completely redrawn. Based on. Uh oh.

So here’s a side by side comparison between Michael Kvrivishvili’s contest entry (left) and the final map that the MBTA has ended up with (right). It’s clear that the final map is based on Michael’s entry, but with a lot of changes.

Some are necessary (the use of standard ADA accessibility symbols), some are improvements (SL 1 and 2 are shown properly as loop lines, and the treatment of the airport shuttle buses is one of the best I’ve seen so far), but the majority of the changes dilute and harm the very strong and graphic design themes of Michael’s original map. 

Michael’s entry focussed very strongly on straightening out the routes as much as possible, reducing the number of curves to the bare minimum required. His Red Line was perfectly straight, apart from a last flick down to Braintree. The Ashmont-Mattapan branch was similarly straightened out. Not any more: the Red Line has pretty much reverted to its previous shape, with more twists and unevenly spaced stations.

Similarly, Michael’s Green Line, which ran in a beautifully clean straight line from Haymarket all the way to Heath Street, has also gained extra curves, all seemingly because of a “need” to show that the line changes direction after Boylston.

Other changes that affect Michael’s original design balance: the reintroduction of “blobby” interchange markers, the thinning of commuter rail lines in relation to their (now oversized) station markers, smaller station labels, more labels that cut across route lines, abbreviations for station names (“Gov’t Center” just looks terrible) the use of ALL CAPS for terminal stations (bold text alone is enough differentiation, and easier to read), the elimination of the visual “hook” of the perfect diamond in the centre of the map… and worst of all:

The replacement of Michael’s elegantly stylised coastline that matched the design of the route lines perfectly with the god-awful “pseudo-geographical” background of the previous map. It looks hideous.

It seems to me that there’s a battle on this final map between Michael’s original diagrammatic approach and a desire from someone at the MBTA for something more like a “real map”, and it’s these competing interests that harm the end result so much. Realistically, a Boston transit map that has to fit into a square is never going to be even remotely geographically accurate (as this image from Wikipedia shows). Michael’s well-considered design approach to this inherent problem was to eschew geography and create a diagram of services, reducing the number of curves in each line to make them easier to follow and evenly spacing stations as much as possible. That approach has been compromised by this final map, which really can’t decide what it wants to be — the old map or the new one.

Official Map: Boston MBTA Government Center Station Closure Bypass

Submitted by Lawrence, who says:

As you’ve probably heard, the MBTA is about to close Government Center at the end of service tomorrow for a 2 year reconstruction. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the detour maps the T created and have put in stations. To me (a self-confessed transit geek), they seem adequate, but all of my friends find them very confusing. This leads to a broader question: how should transit agencies map and market necessary detours like this? What could be done to improve this? Thanks!

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Transit Maps says:

Lawrence, I think you’re being extremely generous when you say that this is an “adequate” map. For me, it takes a pretty simple concept and obfuscates it with so much confusing and unnecessary information that it becomes difficult to decipher.

The idea behind the map is to show riders alternative ways to change between the Green and Blue Lines while Government Center (the natural interchange between these lines) is closed for the next two years. The MBTA’s own project webpage says this, which actually sums things up pretty succinctly:

The recommended path of travel for Green Line customers desiring access to the Blue Line is to travel to Haymarket Station and transfer to the Orange Line toward Forest Hills (southbound). Customers should transfer at State Station for Blue Line connections.

The recommended path of travel for Blue Line customers desiring access to the Green Line is to travel to State and transfer to the Orange Line toward Oak Grove (northbound). Customers should then transfer at Haymarket for Green Line connections.

It’s not exactly convenient — requiring two connections instead of the previous one — but the concept is pretty easy to understand: transfer at Haymarket and State.

You can also walk pretty easily between Park Street and State to achieve a Blue/Green transfer (I’d suggest it would actually take far less time to do this than to transfer trains twice), but the MBTA isn’t doing you any favours if you do. Unless you have an unlimited weekly or monthly pass, you’ll have to pay again to re-enter the system, which doesn’t really seem very fair in the circumstances. An act of good faith from the MBTA might be to allow out-of-system transfers at Park Street and State for the duration of the project (within a reasonable time frame, of course).

So, now that we know what the map is trying to convey, let’s see how it does.

My first — and biggest — problem with the map is the seemingly random way that it depicts the subway lines: all the lines that leave the central map area are ghosted back, except the Blue Line. Why is it shown differently? Why are any of them ghosted back at all? Ghosting a route line back like that can imply that service on that line is suspended or otherwise not operating, which is not true for any of these lines.

It’s particularly confusing for the Blue Line between State and Bowdoin, because it makes it look like all Blue Line services terminate at State. In fact, trains will continue to run through Government Center (without stopping) to Bowdoin, which will operate full-time during this project, instead of its normal limited operating hours.

The other big problem: the repetition of the station “T” icons to show secondary entrances to stations. For someone unfamiliar with Boston (hello, tourists!) these could reasonably be confused for actual, separate stations (which don’t really exist).

The entrance to State station at the Old South Meeting House is the worst offender: the denoted walking path from Park Street leads directly to a labelled “T” marker that’s almost exactly halfway between Downtown Crossing and State — looks like a station to me! The only indication for the uninitiated that this is an entrance to State is that the ring around the “T” shares that station’s blue and orange colour-coding. To my mind, the walking path should continue all the way to State through the marker. And of course, replacing the entrance “T” markers with their own, unique icon would remove any chance for confusion. An icon should never represent two separate, unrelated things!

The arrows used to represent the possible alternate routes do a solid — if unspectacular — job, but they’re surrounded by so much visual confusion that it’s hard to trust what they’re saying. It’s actually kind of frightening that two paragraphs of text on the MBTA website can do a better job of explaining the bypass than this map can — a visual medium should really be able to explain this so much more clearly than a text-based or verbal solution ever could.

In conjunction with the project webpage, which is actually pretty comprehensive, this map is just about tolerable. But for someone coming across it in a station with no other knowledge of the project — it’s awfully hard work. 

(Source: MBTA Project webpage)

Boston Layers

An old Boston T map peeks out from underneath the broken remnants of a recent edition, somewhere along the Orange Line in May 2013. It’s interesting to see that while the two maps occupy the same physical space, their use of it is much different. The older, simpler map fills up its space with bold lines and large type, while the modern map is more geographically based and complex — with the addition of bus routes and the Silver Line — and the type on it is correspondingly smaller.

(Source: Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council - MAPC/Flickr - Photographer: Jessie Partridge)

Submission - Official Historical Map: MBTA Map in Chinese, c. 1985

Submitted by Randy Wong, who says:

The MBTA map in Chinese characters. These used to be posted at the Orange Line Chinatown T-stop, and also at a few of the other lines that intersected/were near Chinese speakers. There are lots of Chinese who live near Malden, Oak Grove, Chinatown, Forest Hills, Quincy, and Quincy Center T-stops, though I don’t recall which stops actually had Chinese T maps.

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Transit Maps says:

Nice localisation of the classic “T” spider map to benefit an ethnic community in Boston. Dating these old Boston maps is always a challenge, so I’m just going to say it’s somewhere around 1985, when the Arborway part of the “E” branch of the Green Line was closed.

Historical Map: Boston Rapid Transit Map in Type 6 Mock-up Carriage, c. 1968

Here’s a variant Boston MBTA map I’ve never seen before: a version with 60-degree angled lines, instead of 45 degrees. Apart from that, it looks very much like the standard late-1960s/early 1970s Cambridge 7 spider map, although there’s some weird inconsistencies like the Green Line “A” Watertown branch (closed 1968) and Quincy Center (opened 1971) on the same map.

Here’s the interesting part. This map lives in the one and only mock-up of an MBTA “Type 6” train carriage at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. This wooden mock-up was created in 1968 by MBTA engineers to allow stakeholders and the public to judge the design’s layout and comfort, but the carriage was eventually deemed too expensive to produce. The MBTA ended up procuring the (incredibly unreliable) Boeing-Vertol LRTs instead. So… this map may actually be as unique as the mock-up that houses it: the only one of its kind. If anyone knows anything more about this variant, I’d love to hear about it!

(Source: Eric Kilby/Flickr — thanks to Boston to a T for further info on the mock-up)

Historical Map: Boston Rapid Transit Map, early 1980s

Submitted by “Some Assembly Required” who says:

I’ve been enjoying your site for some time and recently remembered that I have an old MBTA system map in my basement. It came into my possession via a roommate over 20 years ago; I’m not sure how that person came to have it, but it probably wasn’t entirely legal. It’s a piece of metal (some sort of tin?) so I believe it was removed from a station.

Based on what is and isn’t on the map, I believe it dates to the early 1980s.

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Transit Maps says:

You own this? JEALOUS.

(And your dating seems to be about right; definitely no later than 1985 1982.)

  1. Camera: CASIO COMPUTER CO.,LTD. EX-Z700
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Historical Map: Original 1967 Boston MBTA “Spider” Map with 1980s Additions

What we have here is a 100-percent original 1967 Boston MBTA “spider map" as designed by Cambridge 7 Associates, but with some very unofficial later additions.

The minor additions are the lengthening of two names on the Red Line to later versions — “Kendall” becomes “Kendall/MIT” and “Charles” is now “Charles/MGH”. No problems there. The real eye-opener is the addition of the Red Line extension past Harvard to Alewife. The sticker used has discoloured relative to the rest of the map, so the amendment is very easy to spot.

Now, this extension was fully open in 1985, so let’s date the additions to then. The rest of the map still dates from 1967, so huge parts of it are now horribly out of date. Green Line “A” branch to Watertown? Closed in 1969. Orange Line Charlestown Elevated to Everett? Demolished in 1975. Nothing shown for the Braintree branch of the Red Line, which was well and truly open for service by 1985.

The southern leg of the Orange Line — the Washington Street Elevated — is still accurate for this time period, as it wasn’t torn down until 1987. And we’ll give the “E” branch extending to Arborway and “Washington” station the benefit of the doubt: they both changed in 1985 as well. Still, this map must have been totally confusing for anyone trying to actually use it to get around!

However, this map continues a fine Boston tradition of adding information to old system maps: see here and here

(Source: Boston Andy on Twitter)

Unofficial Map: Boston “T” Map Made From Pipe Cleaners

In a similar vein to this London Tube Map made from paperclips, here’s a perfect little Boston “T” map made from other innocuous household objects. Created by the very talented Andy Woodruff of Axis Maps and Bostonography, who obviously had way too much spare time on his hands one day.

Historical Map: MBTA Keychain, c.1980-1984, c. 1978-1979

Submitted by dinnerkettle, who says:

Inherited this MBTA keychain from my aunt recently. There’s no exact date on it, but it was definitely made before the red line got extended past Harvard and before some other stops got renamed.

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Transit Maps says:

What a great piece of transit map-related ephemera! The best I can date it is after 1980 (when Braintree opened; an arrow points to it at the bottom right of the map), but before 1984 (when the Red Line extended past Harvard to Porter). Also of interest is the extension of the “E” branch of the Green Line all the way to Arborway: this was cut back to Heath Street in 1985.

While obviously based on the classic Cambridge Seven Associates “spider map” that first appeared in 1968, there’s a very curious misspelling of Northampton station as Northhampton (note the extra “h”), which makes me believe that this was produced by a third party vendor under license from the MBTA.

It also looks like the artwork was screen printed in five separate colours: red, green, blue and yellow/orange for the route lines and black for the stations and type. The Blue Line is registered terribly, almost completely missing the station markers along it.

UPDATE: David Sindel’s comment below and a little more sleuthing leads me to revise the date to c. 1978-1979. “Columbia” instead of “JFK/UMass” definitely dates it prior to 1982, and his reasoning about the alternate Harvard stations in the early 1980s is sound.

But the kicker is actually in the map itself, which uses black dots for the stations. By 1980, all stations except the four main interchange stations in the middle of the map were shown using white dots, and the western end of the Red Line had been flipped up at a 45 degree angle.

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My Boston T map used in “The Last of Us” PS3 game without permission or payment

UPDATE, TUESDAY JUNE 25, 1:00pm: I’ve just spoken with Naughty Dog over the phone in a very constructive conversation. Can’t say more at the moment, but it seems as if matters will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction shortly. I can say that they do acknowledge their error in using my map and were very apologetic for it. I likewise apologised for my initial vitriolic post. A lot of mutual respect for each other’s creative work.

It’s been a hell of a last couple of days: thanks for the support from many, and the interesting and varied comments from most.

Hopefully, back to regularly scheduled Transit Maps content soon!