Fantasy Map: Subways of North America by xkcd

My Twitter feed and my Tumblr inbox are both absolutely overflowing with references to this map from the “xkcd’ web comic, so here’s a post about it!

xkcd has always been a comic for geeks, and has a long history of awesome map-related work — my favourites include this Lord of the Rings movie narrative map, and the particularly carto-nerdy discussion of map projections — so it’s nice to see the strip’s attention turn to this particular facet of cartography. Randall Munroe’s typically wry sense of humour can be seen in a lot of the labels on the map: “graveyard for passengers killed by closing doors”, the “Green Line extension to Canada” from Boston, and the inclusion of the infamous Springfield Monorail from The Simpsons. It’s definitely worth exploring in great detail — my favourite is probably the inclusion of the idiosyncratic and once-futuristic Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system at West Virginia University as the connection between Washington, DC and Atlanta.

A lot of people are already having issues with Randall’s definition of a “subway”, which he defines thusly:

For the pedantic rail enthusiasts, the definition of a subway used here is, with some caveats, “a network containing high capacity grade-separated passenger rail transit lines which run frequently, serve an urban core, and are underground or elevated for at least part of their downtown route.” For the rest of you, the definition is “an underground train in a city.”

If we’re going to be pedantic, then there are some strange omissions — Seattle’s Central Link light rail (grade-separated, frequent, serves the city and runs underground through the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel) just off the top of my head. I feel sure many people could think of others!

What the map does show well, even in its cartoon-like execution, is the complete dominance of New York’s subway system (the mouseover tooltip for the comic states that about one in three North American subway stops are in NYC). Randall has remained quite faithful to the actual official system maps for each component city, so New York ends up taking up a huge portion of the map.

But, despite the undeniable brilliance of this map, I know I’ve seen very similar pieces before this. This more serious map of almost exactly the same thing was featured on the Beyond DC blog last month, and this awesome piece by Bill Rankin from 2006 which shows all North American metro systems (a far more inclusive phrase than “subway systems”) at the same scale is also highly reminiscent of this piece. In the end though, it’s infused with enough wacky “xkcd-ness” to make it take on a life of its own.

Official Map: Vancouver, BC Frequent Transit Network

Here’s a question I received from Tumblr user pw3n:

"TransLink (in Vancouver) just released their first official Frequent Transit Network map. A lot could be said about the design (in particular, the apparent lack of craftsmanship), but that’s not what I want to ask you about. The first thing I noticed was a lack of route numbers. At first I was annoyed. But then I thought: do I care what bus is coming by, as long as there’s a bus coming? Basically: is the corridor or the route more important? What are your thoughts on frequent transit maps?"

In general, I think showing service frequency on a map is a good thing and it’s something that’s not done enough by transit agencies. I feel that you can get away without showing frequency on a map that concentrates on one mode with a known service frequency - everyone expects trains to come frequently on the New York subway, for example - but it’s definitely needed on mixed-mode maps like this.

That said, I’m not sure that this FTN map is particularly useful for travellers. My problem is mainly with the bus corridors (as per pw3n’s initial thoughts): there’s no indication of which routes serve the corridors or where any buses actually go. As a transit user, I would say that’s the most important thing for a transit map to show: If I get on a bus here, can I go there? This map doesn’t show that information at all, and I actually feel that TransLink’s previous Transit Connections map does a much better job that this map as the bus routes shown are clearly labelled.

Another problem with this map is that it creates the idea that infrequent service (those routes which exist but don’t meet the criteria for inclusion on this map) equals no service. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. I far prefer to see frequency information incorporated into a full system map, like the previously-reviewed and quite excellent Spokane Transit map.

One thing this map does do well is show gaps in the frequent service network, so it may actually be quite useful for future planning. But as a tool for travellers, I don’t think it’s actually that useful.

Source: TransLink Buzzer Blog)