Happy Birthday, Baby! It’s a T-shirt of a Bus Map!*

by drewnilsen

Buses provide significantly more range, at a much more efficient cost, than rail. However, a seemingly trivial impediment to their adoption — particularly by those who aren’t dependent on public transit — is the indecipherability of bus maps (L.A. example in PDF)

Even here in DC, which only has five Metro subway lines (effectively three, as two lines significantly overlap within the city), people bemoan how difficult it is to get to popular, up-and-coming areas like H Street Northeast/Atlas District  — despite the fact that a bus (the ever-entertaining X2) goes directly from downtown to the burgeoning bar district.

I didn’t ride the bus for years in Austin because I didn’t know where the routes went (smart phones and Google Maps transit directions have somewhat ameliorated this problem). I’m not the only one, and it’s not only Austin.  If you’re new to a city, not knowing where your stop is can become a significant source of consternation and a major obstacle to adoption.

A few simple, affordable changes to how bus routes are presented on maps could go a long way towards making buses more accessible and understandable to the public.First, as much as I love to obsess about the minutiae of accurate maps, the detail of the real world is not helpful for cognitive digestion.

Stylized, graphically-simplified public transit maps — like London’s Tube  and DC’s Metro — make up what they lose in geographic accurancy with a more easily-memorized picture.More significantly, bus maps have suffered from a picture that treats all routes equally. This would be akin to a road map that depicted an unpaved alley the same way as an interstate highway.

There’s a movement afoot to remaster the way bus routes are misrepresented. A Cincinnati activist, Nathan Wessel, has done a fine job in reformatting the city’s bus maps to portray routes in a user-friendly way by frequency [closer map view], going so far as to explain frequent routes (“Hop on!”), secondary routes (“Be prepared to wait a little longer”) and tertiary routes (“Maybe look at a schedule”).

Spider Map graphic from Nathan Wessel, via UrbanCincy.com

Traditionally, all routes — regardless of intervals — have been drawn up identically. So, this change would be a big step forward if implemented by transit authorities. Seattle‘s King County Metro RapidRide is the first I know to do so.

Finally, spiders. Anyone who has ever walked up to a random bus stop — or even tried to decipher a stop online — has faced befuddlement when trying to discern where buses from that (or nearby) stops go.

Although DC’s Metro has attempted to highlight routes emanating from a particular stop, the result is still cluttered.
“Spider Maps” present a better solution — such as Greater Greater Washington’s H Street mockup [closer map view (PDF)]. By reducing the “noise” from other routes — and overlaying neighborhood names without the distraction of other map details — the spider map can convey some clarity for potential riders.

Are convoluted maps the reason that people fear the bus? No. But the accessibility of rail has a lot to do with its simplicity and understandability and, ultimately, the popularity of (expensive) rail over (affordable) buses. At a time when municipal revenues are down and budget cuts are in vogue, cleaning up map presentation is an efficient way to improve service and increase ridership.

*I’ve been asking for these NYC subway map socks for Christmas from my family — composed of Brooklyn natives and transplants alike — for years. To no avail. I want them this year!

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