What did the Bay Area look like in the Age of Rail?

A few years ago, I published a map – really a cartogram – showing the service patterns of Marin’s old Interurban system, the light rail that covered all of Central and Southern Marin. Now, I’m starting on something a bit bigger: what did the Bay Area’s rail network look like in 1937? The Interurban map was motivated out of a sense of confusion about the system. Maps of the time just showed where rails went and what stations were along them, similar to road maps, but contemporary transit maps are different. Rather than showing the rail network, they show the service network – how trains move along the rails.

The resulting map lifted the fog from the system. Rather than just a musty map, I could see how someone could actually get around Marin on the Interurban.

This new project comes from a similar motivation. I’ve seen old maps of the Bay Area, like the one below, but they don’t give a good picture of what goes where and when. Sometimes they leave out or demote rival rail companies. Sometimes they are too low-resolution to show how different lines split off. And they never show how frequently service runs.

So far, thanks to a kind Twitter follower, I’ve obtained a 1,500-page scan of the 1937 rail guide, learned how to read the thing, and started to wrap my head around the Oakland lynchpin of the system. I’ve also determined that I won’t map local-service railroads, like Muni, the Key System or the Interurban. A regional street map doesn’t show local streets, after all, and focuses instead on the freeways. This map will focus on the “freeways” of the regional rail system – the fast, intercity service.

Still undetermined is how much to show. Do I show frequency? It varied wildly: while Western Pacific’s Scenic Limited only left once per day, Southern Pacific ran hourly commuter service between San Jose and San Francisco. Do I show the hierarchy of stations? Palo Alto is a major stop on the Peninsula, while Lawrence was frequently skipped on the same line.

My progress so far is fairly limited, but I'm using Oakland - the most complex part of the system - to try out variations on stop design, font, colors, and how to differentiate service styles. Stay tuned for updates.

The latest Oakland draft