There are few useful maps that blur the lines between reality and fantasy as completely as a subway map. Curves are smoothed, the space between stations is adjusted and even geography itself is modified, all in the name of helping riders understand which train will take them where they need to go.
“It’s both form and function,” said Andrew Lynch, a New York City-based artist and cartographer. He’s part of a vibrant community of armchair urban planners who spend their spare time reinventing official transit maps. Their work, scattered across the blogosphere, is mostly functional but mixed with a healthy dose of creative license. Some maps add in entirely new subway lines where none exist in real life, citing ridership data that supports their presence. Others are unashamedly pop art, an abstract series of lines and circles representing routes and stations. The maps are making a big impact, though — both as art and as a source of ideas for actual improvements to transit systems.
The crowded L train is a ripe target for amateur mapmakers thinking outside the box. It was the fastest-growing line in the city last year, according to MTA data. Ridership at the Bedford Ave. station has more than doubled since 2007. The MTA has made gradual improvements, including new subway cars and a computerized signal system to squeeze more trains onto the line. Lynch, who often takes the L between his apartment on 23rd Street in Manhattan and his job as a bartender in Williamsburg, has studied the ridership data and compared it to the expected population growth. He said the MTA’s improvements don’t go far enough.
“I like to think bigger picture,” he said. “They’re going to need a new crossing.” His plan calls for a second tunnel to be dug parallel to the existing L line underneath the East River. The added capacity would not only alleviate current overcrowding, but would provide room for growth associated with new residential mega-projects in Greenpoint, like the 2,300 apartments slated for construction on the the site of a former Domino Sugar factory.
Lynch considers himself an amateur cartographer and an artist more than an urban planner, but he said the MTA is aware of his maps and proposals, and they even served as inspiration and background for a report on future transit service issued last month by the Transportation Reinvestment Commission. An MTA planner who said he was not authorized to speak publicly confirmed that Lynch’s maps are helpful during long-term planning discussions. Lynch is pleased that the MTA is aware of his work, but said he considers his ideas as visions for the future, rather than plans that can be implemented by an agency who must answer to politicians and accountants.
“This is what I think about when looking at a map,” Lynch said. “We know the problems we have now, but we don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Subway-filled New York isn’t the only place that attracts amateur transit mapmakers. In San Francisco, Steve Boland says that alternative transit maps are “yet another thing that the Internet has made possible.” As a senior associate at transportation consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, Boland’s clients are major transit agencies, but he still finds time to make maps for fun and post them on his blog, Calurbanist.com.
One of his maps, called “BART Minutes & Money,” tells San Francisco subway riders exactly how long it takes and how much it costs to get from downtown to major destinations in the Bay Area. At a glance, commuters can see that a trip to the San Francisco airport would be a southwesterly 29 minute ride, passing nine stations and costing $8.65. No single official map has that information available.
U.S. transit systems in general lag far behind their foreign counterparts when it comes to useful, well-designed maps, Boland said. “The quality of transit maps in Europe and east Asia is consistently good,” he said. “They’re useful tools for navigation.”In some U.S. cities, the best ideas from the blogosphere are finding their way to the ears of transit officials. In 2011, the transit agency in Spokane, Wash., faced the task of informing riders that recession-induced service reductions meant some buses would now only arrive a handful of times each day.
“We had a map that was all plain vanilla and looked the same everywhere,” said Karl Otterstrom, director of planning for the Spokane Transit Authority. That was confusing to people who were deciding where to relocate based on proximity to a stop on the map. One mental health center opened a new facility next to a bus stop that saw virtually no service after the reductions, Otterstrom said.
So the authority redesigned its bus map using an idea promoted by influential transit blogger Jarrett Walker, who argued that maps of smaller transit systems should also show the frequency of service. The new Spokane map shows thicker lines for more frequent service, with buses that arrive at least every 15 minutes depicted with the widest red lines. It’s been well-received by riders, according to Otterstrom, and has even been featured on Walker’s blog, HumanTransit.org.
“There is a lot of good coming from the blogs,” Otterstrom said. In some cases, bloggers’ maps have even become works of art, transcending the practicalities of urban design. That is what happened when Lynch started selling his work online.
“I’m always amazed at the types of people who buy the maps, and how they react to them,” Lynch said. “It opens up this emotion, this memory for them. That’s something that took me completely by surprise.
Individual posters, such as an abstract map of the G train showing nothing but a single line, circles for stations and an infographic at the bottom depicting ridership numbers, sell for $25. A combo pack of maps for the N, Q, R, J, Z, and L trains is $69. But even after his relative success as a cartographer-turned-artist, Lynch still fantasizes about designing the ideal transit map.
“The perfect map would be one that you plug in where you are and where you want to go, and it would tell you everything that you need to know,” he said. “It’s not minimal information, but the minimum information you need.”
Boland agrees with that description. “You want it to be just the right amount of busy,” he said.