Why good transit map design matters

Public transit is not just for people in big cities. All across the United States, public transit is a lifeline for millions of people who cannot afford a car or cannot drive. Unfortunately, these routes often provide the barest minimum of service: four round trips per day, no Sunday service, early end times. To add insult to injury, they are very rarely mapped in a comprehensible way, forcing riders to study dense timetables and obtuse maps.

To solve this problem in Tompkins County, New York, I created a frequency map indicating all stops, all routes, and major connection points.

One page from the rider guide

The existing maps are quite poor: there is no system-wide map, forcing riders to flip between pages to follow a single line along its course. Service levels aren't indicated, with weekend or late-night service shown as being just as important as weekday or high-frequency service. Often, new riders will avoid buses they don't know, even if the bus is going where they want to go, simply because there's no way to know where it will take them. Further, the local system, TCAT, has flag-stop service, where riders can get on or off a bus wherever the driver can safely pull off the road, but it is not indicated. In talking with riders, my team and I found people often didn't even know about the service. The existing maps' final sin is that it groups routes together on the same line even when those routes have nothing in common.

The same area as above, but in my redesign

The new map fixes each of these problems. It adjusts line thickness to indicate mid-day frequency; groups late-night and weekend routes together with their weekday counterpart routes (the 70 is the weekend counterpart of the 30, so these are combined into a single line); indicates flag-stop zones; and is envisioned as showing the full county's system in a single panel. For rural riders, for whom roads are critically important to wayfinding, the road grid is underlaid behind the entirety of the map.

I started a similar project a few years ago for Marin and Sonoma, but my design skills were simply too poor to finish. It taught me a lot, but, given the major changes since starting this project, I suspect I would need to start again. More interesting would be a better map of Bay Area transit service: 

Bad design is not necessarily the fault of the transit agency - good designers are expensive and need management, and often staff and budgets are already too small. There is little time or energy to spearhead change. Still, they ought to consider the benefits that come from comprehensibly conveying the entirety of the system in one clear image.

What if the Bay Area had never lost its railroads?

With the Northwestern Pacific reopening up soon as a limited commuter rail service - even though it need not - one wonders what the Bay Area would have looked like had it reinvested in its rail lines over the years rather than just rebuilt them. Well, it probably would look something like this:

Map by Theo Ditsek. Click to go to his post, where you can find a full-size image.

Map by Theo Ditsek. Click to go to his post, where you can find a full-size image.

I am always pleased to see our region's transit system reimagined by others, but I'm especially happy to see Theo Ditsek, one of the internet's more prolific transit map hobbyists, tackle the Bay Area, and tackle it like he did. From what I can see, he didn't leave a single rail line unused: there are rail lines from West Marin to Sausalito, subways through San Francisco, commuter rail to Santa Cruz, and shuttle lines heading every which way. My favorite, though, is the railroad to Tahoe.

Perhaps my only complaint is the lack of rail links from Marin and Vallejo to San Francisco, both for commuters and long-distance travelers. Beyond this, however, it's a truly marvelous piece of work. Now if only I could get it as a poster...