Transport map design. Part 2 

In the first part I’ve covered the difference between the Beck’s London underground map, our Ekaterinburg metro map, and the Vignelli’s and Hertz’s maps of New York subway. But even the maps that appear to be much more alike in principle, have many little details to serve their cities’ needs.

On stations, there are tracks for opposing directions. In some cities, these tracks are marked with the names of a line’s terminals. Barcelona:

The terminals are thus important for wayfinding, so they have to be emphasised on a map. In Barcelona, they put the terminals’ names on a background, whose colour matches the line’s:

In Paris, they use bold font and put line number symbols:

This is unnecessary in London, where instead of toponymics they use geographic directions (i.e. “Northbound”).

In Oslo, a thick wisp of lines passes through the city centre. One of the lines forms a loop and passes several stations twice: first as line 4, and then as line 6. The transformation from 4 to 6 is shown with a gradient — not a typical element indeed:

There is another detail in Oslo: the trains pass the Gulleråsen station only in one direction. This requires a designation, an element that was not used in any of the maps we’ve discussed above:

Moscow has its own peculiarity: for historical reasons, the stations have different names on different lines (sick, but what can you do). In addition, the Moscow metro map has to use both Cyrillic and Latin scripts for its station names. Depiction of transfers turns into a problem. Here, eight names should be positioned around the “Biblioteka imeni Lenina — Aleksandrovsky sad — Arbatskaya — Borovitskaya” junction, where four lines intersect:

Fragment of the official map. This places looks cleaner in my design

A whopping six lines intersect at London’s “King’s Cross St. Pancras” station; just one name suffices:

There is not a single place on the giant London map where a station name intersects a line — there is always space around the lines. To achieve this in Moscow, one would need to dramatically reduce the font size and complicate the line geometry. That’s why Moscow metro map includes a device the London one does not: a transparent plaque for the station names crossing lines (see above).

But London has its own complication absent in Moscow. The grey “clouds” designate the payment zones — something Moscow does not need since the price of a ride is fixed:

Every city and transport network has lots of details which make it impossible to use the same exact graphical principles everywhere. But there is another reason for maps to be so different, which I will cover next time.

Apr 20   design   maps   transportation

Transport map design. Part 1 

For many people, a map of a transport network is a given, an expected part of a system, something that just is — like a fire escape plan in a building. So when I say that I design transport maps, they don’t understand. What is there to design, even?

The London underground map by Harry Beck was the world’s first transport map to use the principles of electrical circuit drawings:

Transport map design as a city’s signature

All line segments were put to the angles of 45° and 90°. The distances between stations were equalised. I wrote about it in part three of my “Maps and reality” series, Diagrams.

This schematic approach was later adopted by many transport maps of the world. But not every time was this a good idea. This is one useless map (Samara, Russia):

It adds almost nothing to just listing the stations:

Алабинская · Российская · Московская · Гагаринская · Спортивная · Советская…

Beck’s design dealt with growing complexity and spread of London underground rail network. When there is just one line, it’s better to put this line in context. See our Ekaterinburg metro map, for example:

Every transport network requires a specialised solution.

Let’s look at New York. The subway is large and complicated, but quite different from London: trains can have different routes, which are denoted by both numbers and letters. In 1972, Massimo Vignelli designed this map:

In London, ticks are used to depict stations:

Vignelli couldn’t have used them in New York. In London, lines rarely run together through the same stations. And when they do, all trains in a “wisp” stop at all of them — see Great Portland Street and Euston Square above.

In New York, such wisps are everywhere, and some trains don’t stop at some stations. So when there is a stop on a particular route, Vignelli puts a black bullet in the route’s line:

You can see that at some stations, not every line has a bullet.

Vignelli’s map was beautiful, but, unfortunately, unsuccessful. People considered it too abstract. Having no geographical reference, the eye had nothing to catch on. Also, the stations named with street numbers looked identical — the font was just too small for that.

This design was the closest to London’s that New York has ever seen.

The successful design was the one by Michel Hertz (1979) — still in use. It includes parks, ponds, main streets and areas names:

Illustration from an interview with Michel Hertz

The related routes are denoted with just one line, not a wisp:

But there’s a list of stopping routes at each station. Look at the red line, for example. Only route 1 stops at 18, 23 and 28 st., but all routes stop at 14 and 34 st.

Hertz wanted his map to look geographical. But he knew that a “true” map would use the format very inefficiently. So his map is actually distorted significantly for everything to fit. Google Maps on the left, Hertz’s map on the right:

Hertz’s map doesn’t look stylish. But it has proven to work well. This is a very specific, bulletproof design tailored to New York.

To be continued.

Apr 12   design   maps   transportation

Transport in Kiev 

More pictures from the same April trip to Kiev as the recent yards.

Nice yellow trolleybuses:

Not as nice:

Jitney stops list:

A stop:

Metro ticket hall:



A poster:

Map booklets:

River station:

Anything goes to protect your parking stop. Bottles:


This is a different kind of transport. They attach you to a cable and you fly to the island:

Looks cool:

Mar 11   Kiev   photo   transportation   world
2017   Ekaterinburg   projects   transportation

Map and reality: diagrams 

In the previous two parts, we’ve figured out that the preferred distortion and layers depend on the map’s supposed use case.

With public transport maps, our goal is to help the customer get from point A to point B using the displayed transport network.

This is a map of Paris Metro of 1915:

Paris Metro, 1915

The city is shown in full detail. There are many layers. The metro lines, however, stand out because of the use of contrasting red thick lines.

Compare with the map of London underground railways of 1908:

London underground railways, 1908

The lines of different railways are denoted by different colours. The rest of the city — the roads, the parks and the river — makes one pale-gray layer.

But even this layer is removed by 1932:

London underground railways, 1932

The river Thames is the only non-railway object that remains on this map. And it is the only device that links the railways to the surface geography.

It is always interesting to explore a detailed map with lots of layers. But in this case, the pleasure of exploration is much less important than the customers’ ability to quickly pick out which train to take. The information richness is sacrificed to the comprehension speed.

But as we see, despite all the simplifications, the central part is still rather hard to read. In several places, arrows had to be used to clarify the correspondence of labels and stations.

The engineer Harry Beck has come up with a radical idea. He suggested redesigning the maps using the principles of electrical circuit drawings.

Electrical circuit

Such drawings prioritise the logical connection between the elements over their physical position. What if a railway map also displayed first and foremost the logical connection between the stations?

The Beck’s diagram replaced the map in 1933:

Beck’s Underground map, 1933

All lines segments were put to the angles of 45° and 90°. The distances between stations were equalised.

The modern diagram has twice as many lines and many more layers, but it inherits the Beck’s principles:

Modern London Underground map

Compare with a geographical map of the same lines:

Geographical London Underground map

The central part here is so dense that it had to be put in a cutaway at a bigger scale. And even so, everything turned out very small. Now we see that showing “true” geography is not universally useful. This geographical map is much harder to read. For the railways’ customers, the diagram excels.

If the distances between the stations are equal, the reader will grasp that it’s just a convention and won’t rely on it. If the lines are strictly at 45° or 90°, the reader will grasp that they do not represent the actual paths of the underground tracks and won’t rely on it either. But this doesn’t mean that you can get rid of any geographical reference.

In 2007 I made a rectilinear Moscow Metro map as an experiment:

While the principles of the above diagram are easy to figure out, there still is a problem: even if you live in Moscow, you will have a hard time finding your station.

Since any map is perceived in reference to the image of reality formed by the geographical maps, you have to respect that. If the reader knows roughly where a station is in the city, they should be able to find it on the diagram, too.

2016   information display   maps   transportation   wayfinding

Map and reality: layers 

In Map and reality: distortion I talked about how distortion is inevitable on a map and the question is what to distort given a particular task.

Now let’s talk about layers. What properties of land should a map display?

Physical and geographical world atlas (1964)

Physical and geographical world atlas (1964)


A physical map shows terrain: oceans, trenches, plains and mountains. On a political map, the land is divided into countries and states. A mineral resources map is covered with the symbols of mineral deposits and oilfields.

One can’t say that a physical map is “truer” than, say, a railroad atlas. The following map shows the history of Amsterdam’s development, and it’s also true. Red houses are the oldest, the blue ones are the newest:

Buildings age in the Netherlands

A good cartographer will find ways to display lots of data on a map:

A map of Chelyabinsk region, Russia (1956)

A map of Chelyabinsk region, Russia (1956)


This map displays terrain, the region boundaries, motorways and railroads, settlements, ponds, mountain ridges, height markings, parallels and meridians.

By carefully choosing colour shades, widths and styles of lines, typefaces of text, the cartographer achieves clear separation of visual layers. Background colours that marks the heights are unsaturated to let one see the labels clearly. A particular hatching is used along the region boundaries to make them well distinguishable. The letters У Р А on the left separated by many other designations, are perceived as one label ЮЖНЫЙ УРАЛ (Southern Ural) on the full map thanks to a special typeface.

The more features are shown on a map, the more interesting it is to explore it.

However, there are circumstances that do not suggest an unhurried examination by a curious reader. Sometimes a map should just answer a narrow set of practical questions.

A pedestrian map shows the main landmarks, sidewalks, bike lanes, subway stations, toilets and Wi-Fi zones:

WalkNYC wayfinding system (2013)

A nautical chart displays water depths, navigational hazards, important routes, harbours and the details of the coastline:

A nautical chart

The depths are marked with numbers — while the shades of blue as used on physical maps are more illustrative, a sailor wants the actual values. The dry land gets very little attention.

The choice of the layers and the way to separate them, as well as the choice of appropriate distortion, depends on the map’s goal and supposed use.

Continued in Map and reality: diagrams.

2016   information display   maps   transportation   wayfinding

Map and reality: distortion 

Often, transport diagrams do not accurately represent reality. But is this “lying” even acceptable? And if yes, to what degree?

Schematic depiction of the land has been done since rock drawings. By any contemporary measure these “maps” are ridiculously inaccurate. But they include enough detail for orientation.

This is an ancient road map of Roman Empire (created between −1 and 5 centuries; implemented in parchment in the 13th):

Ancient road map of Roman Empire

Here is Rome:

Rome on a map of Roman Empire

We are used to a very different appearance of these territories on a map. It’s quite hard to figure out what’s going on here. However, for a man who haven’t seen other maps, there is no reason to think that something is wrong: the roads actually connect the places.

On Ptolemy’s map of the world (2nd century; reproduced by the engraver Johan Schnitzer in the 15th century) the outline of Europe gets somewhat familiar:

Ptolemy’s map of the world

On Mercator’s map (16th century) it looks the way we are used to:

Transit maps and distortion

And here’s the whole world in Mercator projection:

Transit maps and distortion

Greenland looks bigger than Africa. The area of Antarctica’s looks comparable to everything else combined. But the red circles actually denote the same physical area, which gives you an idea of how distorted the map is.

This is a modern Google Map:

A Google Map of Europe

After a man had been to space, it seems, there are no more uncertainties about the shapes of land and see. But can we say this map is actually precise?

The map is flat and Earth is “round”, so a precise map just can’t exist. Futhermore, let’s look from a distance:

A Google Map

This is Mercator projection!

Mercator projection is one the most important map projections. Its main quality is that it preserves the angles. In each point the horizontal and vertical scales of the map are the same. That’s why when moving from the equator to the poles, the map is artificially stretched vertically the same way it naturally gets stretched horizontally.

Google engineer explains:

The first launch of Maps actually did not use Mercator, and streets in high latitude places like Stockholm did not meet at right angles on the map the way they do in reality. While [Mercator] distorts a “zoomed-out view” of the map, it allows close-ups (street level) to appear more like reality. The majority of our users are looking down at the street level for businesses, directions, etc… so we’re sticking with this projection for now.

Turns out, angles are far more important for navigation than the fair relative representation of land area.

The equidistant projection doesn’t distort area as much, but does distort the shape significantly:

Equidistant projection

The map projections are actually classified by the types of distortions the make. Depending on task at hand, the lengths, angles, areas or shapes can be sacrificed.

When I was designing a map of UZP plant dealerships in Russia, I even split the country in two halves. The Eastern part was displayed at twice smaller scale. This has let me show the much more inhabited Western part in larger detail (I didn’t know then that using such colours was not a good idea):

Map of UZP plant dealerships in Russia

A map from Herbert Bayer’s “The World Geo-Graphical Atlas” the Earth is cut in pieces in order to preserve the shape of the mainlands. For a map that shows the world’s population the fair display of the oceans and Antarctica is not that important:

World population map from Herbert Bayer’s “The World Geo-Graphical Atlas”

To some degree, any map is a lie.

Continued in Map and reality: layers.

2016   transportation   wayfinding

Ekaterinburg metro map 

Check out this new Ekaterinburg metro map:

Designed by Pasha Omelyohin, directed by myself.

A large metro network works like teleport: people don’t care how it gets you from point A to point B, it just does. In London, Paris or Moscow metro maps do not show the surface geography: there is no room. And for many people, the metro map is the map of the city.

But that’s not the case for the small metros. Designing a map for a small metro this way makes no sense:

This does not contain any new information compared to a plain list of stations. The need to simplify and get rid of surface details only occurs when the complexity of the map gets in the way of finding your route. Ekaterinburg does not have this problem.

When there is one metro line, there is no teleport effect. It is very important to show how the metro is connected to the surface:

That’s why we list the routes of buses, trolleybuses and trams, show metro exit locations, nearby streets, parks, the river Iset, railway and coach stations:

2016   Ekaterinburg   projects   transportation
2015   projects   transportation

The urban transportation in the future 

Cities have many means of transportation with fixed routes: underground, trains, buses, trams, jitneys. This is ineffective. Some buses run empty because at a particular moment nobody wants to go where they go. Some directions are not served at all when needed. City administrations try to minimise these issues by carefully planning the routes, but this process is too inert.

This system should become dynamic.

You tell your watch where you want to go. The data goes to the special city software. The software analyses the data of the citizens in real time and comes up with the optimal current routes so that everyone gets where they need to. The watch then tells you when to leave home and taps your wrist when your bus arrives.

An auction system will emerge: the more you are willing to pay, the quicker the system will get you where you want.

The system will be open for new players. Some will be just drivers who have a spare hour (Uber). Others will anticipate a long-lasting demand and build a whole underground line. There will be a continuum of the means of transportation, from buses (spacious, rather slow, cheap to ride, popular) to taxis (compact, usually fast, expensive, custom). The will be no route numbers for buses as there are no for taxis.

The route-planning software will want to forecast the demand for its services. So it will request access to your calendar. At some point you will no longer need to tell your watch anything, the system will just know where you want to go.

If you don’t feel like sharing your calendar with the transportation system, that’s not a problem. It is just that the rides will be more expensive for you, as the planner will not have enough data for optimisation. The majority will prefer to share in exchange for a discount, as it does prefer giving up some privacy to get the free Google services.

Since there will be no place for transport officials in this system, they will oppose it vehemently.

2015   future   transportation