Transit systems: A window into cities

A transit system is the pulse of a city, the arrivals, departures and hubs like nodes connecting its people. Transit maps are a symbol of urban life and point of fascination for me.

Often, the transit system says a lot about the city and people it serves. Is it focused on bringing people to work from the suburbs? Does it connect inner-city neighborhoods? Are large areas difficult to reach, and why?

A page from "Transit Maps of the World" shows the evolution of Berlin's map.

Imagine my delight, then, to find a book about Transit Maps of the World.

“Urban transit maps echo the prevailing social and political trends of the societies they emanate from,” author Mark Ovenden writes. Alongside maps often dating back to the 19th century, they offer short narratives describing the systems’ evolution. (I haven’t read the book, so for reviews, head over to Amazon).

Transit maps often distort geographic distances in favor of clarity or readability. That can impact riders’ decisions: If a station appears farther away on a map, riders are less likely to travel there.

In a study of London’s tube map, NYU graduate professor Zhan Guo found that the way maps portray distances and connecting points trumps even rider’s own experience with the underground system.

The case study on the London Underground confirms that a schematic transit map indeed affects passengers’ path choices. Moreover, the map effect is almost two times more influential than the actual travel time. In other words, underground passengers trust the tube map (two times) more than their own travel experience with the system.

(via 2nd Ave Sagas)

The Washington Metro map is a good example of this distortion. Portrayed to scale, the outlying stops on the red and orange lines would be much farther apart, while the stops close to the National Mall are strechted out for better readability.

The map will be redesigned with the addition of a new line to the system, which prompted the blog Greater Greater Washington to hold a map design contest.

If anything, the entries there show: It’s incredibly difficult to design a map that both makes sense of the transit system and accurately represents a city’s geography. And that’s just scratching the surface.

One thought on “Transit systems: A window into cities

  1. Pingback: Mapping the world, one tweet and picture at a time | Curious on the Road

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