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 For now, the map on the actual MBTA website is still the previous version.

The blurb about the map on 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.

Submission: Transportation in the Backwaters of Kerala, India

Submitted by Jim McNeill, who says:

Kerala in southern India is famed for its backwaters, a popular holiday destination for people to cruise in rented houseboats. I was amazed to see a transit map of the area, and not a bad one at that. I was impressed at the attempt to show road, train, boat and air all on the same map. Granted it’s not perfect, the ferry crossings become maze like in the centre and there are some awkward angles in the south, but overall I was impressed.


Transit Maps says:

It’s not the world’s most beautiful transit map, but I’m as impressed as Jim by the map’s intent: one map showing all the transportation options available in the Backwaters of Kerala — a huge area covered by lakes, lagoons, rivers and canals, sometimes compared to the Mississippi Bayous.

One thing the map doesn’t really do is give an idea of the scale of the area shown: it’s around 140km (86 miles) by road from Kollam at the bottom of the map to Kochi near the top. It’s only when you read the notes on the map and see that a ferry trip from Kollam to Allappuzha (not even as far as Kochi) will take seven hours to complete that you start to get an idea of what we’re dealing with here. Some context in the form of the large lakes that the canals join together would be helpful in this regard. 

I’d also agree that the maze-like representation of the ferry routes in the middle isn’t very helpful, although it seems that Allappuzha is the main hub and ferries from elsewhere all end up there eventually. Another thing to note is that India has officially-designated National Waterways, much like National Highways — the main water route through this area is National Waterway 3, and is clearly marked as such on the map.

Our rating: Not beautiful, and not really that great for ferry route-finding. But in the end, it’s quite a nice little overview of transportation in the Kerala region as a whole. Two-and-a-half stars.

2.5 Stars

Official Map: Sydney Light Rail Network, 2014

Sydney’s light rail system is expanding this Thursday March 27, with an extension from the current outermost station at Lilyfield along an old freight rail alignment to Dulwich Hill.

Here’s the map of the “network” (can you call one line a network?) that’s now available on the Transport for NSW website. Stylistically, it’s been brought into line with the maps of the other Transport for NSW services, including that of the main Sydney Trains network.

Interestingly, the light rail line seems to have inherited the red colour that the main Sydney Trains map lost when the old Northern Line was rebranded as part of the Yellow “T1” line: I don’t know whether this is by design or coincidence.

The map is drawn well enough, showing the slightly circuitous route that the line takes through Pyrmont in a nicely stylised manner, but the whole thing just seems so… empty.

In a frankly baffling move, absolutely no indication is given of where the light rail interchanges with the main rail network — at Central (Sydney’s main railway station), Dulwich Hill, and (with a bit of a walk) at Lewisham West. Ferries are also easily accessible at the Pyrmont Bay station, and there are connections to bus services at many of the stations. A light rail line like this doesn’t exist in isolation: it’s a feeder service that creates and allows transit connections — why not show them, especially when there’s so much empty space on the map?

Our rating: Competent enough and in-keeping with the new Sydney transit design style, but needs to show better integration with other transit options to be truly useful. Two-and-a-half stars.

2.5 Stars

Source: Transport for NSW website

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!


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)

Official/Future Map: Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Strip Map (now with added Green Line!)

Submitted by Nathan Bakken, who says:

Hi, I am an Urban Studies major at UMN, and while riding the Blue line today I noticed the new transit map for our light rail system. thought i would share.


Transit Maps says:

Looks like the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit is gearing up for the opening of the new Green Line light rail nice and early! The line — which will link the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul — doesn’t open until June 14, but here’s a strip map ready to go on a train already. By the looks of it, the “Green Line Opens June 14, 1014” text is on a sticker that can simply be removed from the map at the appropriate time.

The map itself does just about everything you could expect from an above-door strip map that has to show the entire system: it clearly labels the stations (using type only set at one, consistent angle: well done), delineates the two downtown cores with a minimum of fuss and even gives estimates of the time taken to travel between stations. I’d like the interchange to the Northstar commuter rail service at the Target Field station to be given a little more prominence, but that’s really about my only complaint.

Our rating: Simple, clean, clear — what maps of this type should strive to be! It’ll be interesting to see how this map evolves further when the Green and Red Line extensions come into play, though. Three-and-a-half stars.

3.5 Stars

  1. Camera: iPhone 5s
  2. Aperture: f/2.2
  3. Exposure: 1/120th
  4. Focal Length: 4mm

Photo: A Washington DC Metro strip map that’s just bound to cause confusion…

Here’s an example of an overly designed strip map that’s gone horribly wrong. This photo was taken by Bryan Rodda, who notes that the sign makes it appear that Foggy Bottom-GWU is the name of the main interchange station between the Silver, Blue and Orange Lines in the center of the photo.

Anyone who knows the DC Metro system will know that the station in question is actually Rosslyn, but the map makes this horribly ambiguous. The problem stems from the fact that all the station names are offset from their markers up and along a 45-degree axis. It seems a reasonable thing to do in theory, but what it has actually done is position most of the labels almost directly above the next station marker to the right, where it can reasonably be confused as belonging to that marker.

Good design should not create confusion or make things unnecessarily ambiguous for the end user — it should always simplify and clarify: something this map absolutely fails to do.

(Source: Bryan Rodda/Twitter)

New Official Map: Metro de Santiago, Chile

Sent my way by moon-monolith, here’s a new map for Santiago’s extensive Metro system. I reviewed the previous one back in March of 2012, giving it a pretty generous 3 stars.

In a way, this is really an evolution of the previous map, rather than a complete redesign — the routes still sit on top of a stylised street grid of the city, for example — but the execution is much more polished and stylish.

The whole city has been expanded horizontally (the map is rectangular now instead of the almost square proportions of the previous one). With more room to breathe, the labels for all the stations can be set horizontally instead of at angles for easier reading. The deletion of the express route information that was previously shown for Line 1 also helps with the cleaner look.

Informational icons have been simplified and standardised: instead of the entire (and complex) logo for the innovative BiblioMetro program, we now just have a quickly-identifiable (and universally understood) book icon. The standard “bike” symbol also works a lot better than the previous BiciMetro logo.

Things aren’t perfect, though: the poor old airport still loiters up in the top left hand corner of the map with absolutely no way illustrated to actually get there, and there’s some inconsistent and poorly drawn curves on the river. Look especially at the one to the northwest of Puente Cal y Canto station… ugly!

Our rating: An definite improvement! Three-and-a-half stars.

3.5 Stars

(Source: Official Metro de Santiago website)

Official Map: Integrated Transit of Südtirol (Alto Adige), Italy

Sent my way by a reader known only as “mmmaps”, here’s a map of the transit system of the northern autonomous Italian province of Südtirol (South Tyrol in English, or Alto Adige in Italian). The system is mainly made up of buses (dark blue), but there’s also a backbone of rail services between the major cities (shown in light blue) and aerial cable-cars as well.

While the restrained colour palette (just blues and greys) looks quite nifty, the map’s usability is seriously hampered by this simplistic approach. Without coloured route lines, the map designers have had to denote separate routes by putting numbered boxes across each line to indicate where they go. And that makes actually using the map to work out how to get places a lot of really, really hard work.

For starters, the termini of routes aren’t indicated at all. A reader has to follow a desired route number along, checking at every bifurcation which way it goes (sometimes it goes more than one direction!). Eventually, there’s no more numbers to follow — so you have to assume that the service ended at the last town? Maybe. You have to work it out by yourself, hopefully with the aid of the individual route timetables and schedules that are available. However, this map gives a rotten overview of destinations, interchanges and routes for someone unfamiliar with the network. A user should always be able to trace any given route from one end to the other without having to make guesses!

If you think I’m being hard on the map, answer this simple question: which two cities does the 314 bus run between?

Our rating: Using a transit map really shouldn’t be this hard. One-and-a-half stars, and that’s because I like the Südtirol logo at the bottom left.

1.5 Stars

(Source: Official SII website)

Video: New NYC Transit Touch Screens

Neat little video from Gizmodo giving an overview of the new touch screen maps/informational kiosks at Grand Central. Is it just me, or does it take forever for the map to find and draw a requested route?

(Source: Gizmodo/Vimeo)

Official Map: Bus Network of Brownsville, Texas

A strong entry into the Transit Maps Hall of Shame from Brownsville, Texas, with this map that depicts the Brownsville Urban System (or “BUS” — I see what they did there).

Where to start with this awfulness? Probably with the graduated blue background that causes visual dissonance (that shimmering edge when colours clash horribly) with just about everything else on the map, especially the red street name labels! It also makes the underlying grey road network almost impossible to make out.

How about the myriad different dashes, dots, and line thicknesses used to denote the different routes? Because so many different line types are used, the Brownsville city limits (also depicted with a dashed line) end up looking like another route that encircles the city!

The inset that shows the location of stops at “NSTS” is absolutely impossible to make out. There’s an enormous and ugly compass rose that dominates the entire map and a whole other north pointer, just in case. There’s some absolutely appalling typography across the entire map. There’s a very precise scale (1:19,500) that would only apply if you printed the map out at its full 30” x 36” poster size, but also a warning that the “map is not to scale”. I could go on, but I won’t.

Our rating: If I actually had an icon for negative stars, I’d probably use it. Zero.


(Source: Official Brownsville Metro site)