A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Tag: maps

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!

Trains to Nowhere

by drewnilsen

Washington, DC’s Metro often receives praise as the nicest subway in America. Having just moved to DC after a short stint living in and traveling around Europe – I’d lick the floor of Lisbon’s subway, and a Brussels tram I rode smelled of rich, new cowhide – I can a little snotty about this assessment. Yes, Metro is carpeted and has coolly Modernist stations that don’t drip sewage onto copious amounts of rats, and local riders self-police each other’s behavior (“STAND RIGHT, WALK LEFT, YOU STUPID TOURIST!”).

Yet, Metro shuts down before midnight on weeknights and switches to painfully long intervals at an absurdly early hour (what this blog’s Founder coined “the Matlock schedule”).

But the biggest problem with Metro is coverage, owing to its genesis in an era when cities were out of vogue, and it doesn’t know if it’s an urban rail system or a commuter line.  Metro – and most other American public transit networks (other than New York City’s) – was predicated on a goal of shuttling commuters into and out of downtown, but not necessary to and from neighborhoods where people might live, work, and play.

Greater Greater Washington has a nifty animation of the evolution of Metro, from 1976 to the present.  It should be fun for any Washingtonian to see how the routes have expanded and morphed over the years, particularly in light of last month’s Rush Plus tweaks to the system.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for any system with only five lines to serve most neighborhoods. However, New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s El and Boston’s T all seem to benefit from the existence of complementary suburban commuter lines, which allow the urban rail to focus on the city itself.  Despite the existence of commuter rail in Maryland, Virginia lacks such a system, forcing Metro into a schizophrenia that adequately serves nobody.

Unfortunately, altering train infrastructure is prohibitively expensive and time consuming. If we could start from scratch, though, I suspect the DC Metro map would look much different, and that Chicago’s El lines wouldn’t all require going into the Loop to go from Andersonville to Roscoe Village.

As cities from Los Angeles to Austin to Atlanta create and expand rail and other public transportation in their metropolitan areas, they’d be wise to consider that American cities are no longer what they were in the 1960s and 1970s – people now commute from one suburb to another, not to downtown, and people choose to live and hang out off H Street, not flee to Woodbridge when the figurative foreman’s whistle blows (or happy hour ends).