Maps are, first and foremost, a means of communication.
When we create a map, we’re trying to communicate ideas and concepts that have to do with spatial relationships. Area. Direction. Distance. We can use words to express these same ideas, but a map is a more efficient and effective way to do it.
I’ve been captivated by maps for pretty much my entire life. Certainly since elementary school, anyway. I have a soft spot for transit maps, which are often not so much maps as they are diagrams.
This map of the London Underground is a perfect example of a schematic diagram. Relative distances, directions and natural features (the Thames River, for example) have all been vastly simplified in order to achieve a more readable, more geometric layout. Overlaying this diagram over an actual map of London would demonstrate just how much artistic license went into this.
With an underground map, this is perfectly acceptable, precisely because we are traveling off the main grid of city streets. We don’t need as much context when we are trying to navigate a city via subway; cross streets, for example, aren’t as important to us as identifying locations where we can make connections to other lines. Distances between stops don’t have to be proportional, so long as we know more or less where we will find ourselves when we disembark at our desired stop.
This removal of context doesn’t work so well when we are talking about bus maps. Buses do stay on the surface. Landmarks and major intersections are important to bus riders in a way they are not to subway riders, because on the surface they are useful waypoints. Bus riders need more context from bus route maps, which makes a diagram a poor choice for a map style.
Unfortunately, designers of bus route maps often revert to a diagrammatic approach, for whatever reason. The results are often less than satisfying.
This map, of one of St. Petersburg’s bus routes, provides very little context. We have no information whatsoever about connecting routes, and we know from the beginning that relative distances are distorted (thanks to the “Map not to scale” disclaimer) – of course, you could figure that out for yourself just by looking at it. Note that the distance between 37th Street and 58th Street – a span of 21 blocks – is about the same as the map distance between 58th Street and 66th Street, a mere eight blocks.
We also know that three shopping centers, a middle school, and the public library are all located somewhere along this route. But that’s all we know, really. There is almost no information at all about how this route fits into the city it is meant to serve; as a result, it presents itself as somehow separate from that city, not as a transportation link that is vital to the day-to-day business of some of the people who live there. It’s a subtle thing, yes; but honestly, that bus route could be anywhere at all, and the fact that it doesn’t really connect to the city it serves makes it all the easier to ignore.
This one does a little better, especially if you’re familiar with the way metro Detroit uses the Mile Road system to mark distances north of downtown. So we know that the distance between the SMART transfer point on Woodward and 9 Mile is four miles south of the transfer point on Woodward and 13 Mile.
But that enables our cartographer to take liberties with scale; notice the distance between 8 Mile and 9 Mile? Now compare it to the distance between 13 Mile and 14 Mile. Shouldn’t those be the same? But clearly, they are not, and there’s not even a scale disclaimer anywhere on this diagram. So as map readers, we have to wonder what other distortions of distance and direction may be going on without our knowledge.
Like the previous example, this map is not effectively placed into the context of the city it serves. It’s a blue line that serves empty white space, apparently. However, at least there are some transfer points included here – I’m not sure what SMART is, but it doesn’t appear to me that it’s part of the same system as this bus line. Where are the other bus route connection points? We don’t know, because this diagram doesn’t tell us. We can’t even tell if there are other buses that run nearby, say a block or two away, because the blue line has been separated from its city and placed in this diagram.
There are plenty of examples of bus route maps done right – just do a Google Image search on “bus map” and you’ll find any number of them – which is why I’m so frustrated by examples like these two. There’s no real reason for bus maps to be so spartan and stingy with their information.
Other than printing cost, I presume …