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Design a New Bus Map
Harry Beck's famous map of the London Underground. Flickr photo by grepnold.

Harry Beck's famous map of the London Underground. Flickr photo by grepnold.

I had the very good luck to be invited to the Nationals-Red Sox game Tuesday night and was trying to figure out the best way of getting to Navy Yard from Union Station without using the Red Line.

I first used’s trip planner. Nothing came up that didn’t need a transfer. Knowing not to trust the trip planner particularly, I loaded up the bus map for the District. After flipping back and forth repeatedly between the inset for downtown and the main map, I found that the N22 bus would take me right where I needed to go. Unfortunately, there turns out not to be an N22 route anymore. Not that the WMATA website told me this; Google did.

This is why no one likes the bus.

Google also told me that the N22 had been replaced by a Circulator bus. I went to the Circulator website, took a look at the Union Station-Navy Yard route on their extremely clear map, and was done. So much easier. Thank you DDOT.

But really, is it so hard to update the map when you eliminate lines? Would it be impossible for the Circulator (and other non-Metro bus services around the region) to be included on Trip Planner? These are pretty low bars to have to set. Questions of speed, reliability, frequency and all the rest don’t matter very much if you can’t figure out where to take the bus in the first place. (As a side note, in a full-day conference about how to improve bus service, improving the ease of navigating the system was mentioned by exactly one person, David Alpert.)

This raises the very interesting question of how to effectively convey information about the bus system. For now, I’m going to limit that question to the low-tech: maps. Technology is going to be part of the answer, of course, but until we have greater technological literacy and accessibility, you’re not going to be able to replace maps.

First off, I’m curious why the bus map is at scale. Look how hard it would be to use the subway map, if it were at scale. There is an obvious benefit to making the map schematic.  That said, I quickly checked New York, Boston and London, all of which also have schematic subway maps but perfectly accurately scaled bus maps, so there seems to be some sort of consensus that this is the best way to show bus routes. My theory is that since bus coverage is so local, and no one wants to walk more than a few blocks to their bus stop, accurately showing distances and precise routes is considered of great importance. The problem is that this crowds downtowns and other areas with many different bus routes and decreases legibility. I bet that you could compress space some along the outside of the map and expand it at the center and make a more readable bus map without sacrificing too much, though.

Second, each of these bus maps uses coding systems that seem to have meaning to the transit authority but not to the person looking at the map. The human eye is trained to catch details like color, so that one jumps out in particular, but the meaning of the numbers and letters seems equally mysterious. For example, the green lines include all the N and X buses, some of the M buses, and then a seemingly random assortment of the numbered buses. Why is the 34 green while the 31, 32, and 36 are red? If there’s a reason, I can’t figure it out. If not, well, then what’s the map for?

Similarly, the letters mostly bunch together, except when they don’t. The M6 runs from Potomac Ave to Naylor Rd and the M8 and M9 circle around near Congress Heights, but the M4 runs on Nebraska Ave from Sibley Hospital through Tenleytown and further up into Northwest. Does the M mean anything in particular? It wouldn’t be hard to rename at least some of the routes to provide more information. For example, in Manhattan, some (though not all) of the bus numbers describe what street the bus runs on. So the M72 and M79 run on 72nd and 79th Streets. Why not rename those routes that do stay on one street the whole time? This would make it much easier to know which buses to take.

One more idea might be to separate out the maps for the new local and express buses. If each map only needed to display half as many routes (and the express map a more limited number of stops), that information could be much more clearly communicated. As a rider, you know if you’re looking for express or local service most of the time, so this shouldn’t take any information away.

These are just a few off the top of my head; this is really a problem for a graphic designer. How much do you think that Edward Tufte would charge? Or any of these guys?

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  • Jason

    According to the legend, green lines indicate routes that run through both DC and Maryland, while red lines show routes that operate only within the borders of DC.

  • But you should get help if they last for two weeks or more, or if they keep you from your relationships, your work, or your life. ,

  • For some reason, a lot of people are just as partial to a geographic map as they are to schematic maps. As iconic as the Washington Metro map is, New Yorkers complain endlessly about it being (almost invariably in these words) “too Fisher-Price” – presumably meaning not geographic enough, at least compared to New York transit maps.

  • Noah Kazis

    There are some really great comments on here I want to respond to.

    First, David, Google is obviously the solution. You don’t even have to know the question to get that one right.

    Lisa – you’re quite right about much-needed improvements at the bus stop and on the bus. This post was just concerned with step one, which is getting to the bus stop in the first place.

    KK: I think that where we disagree is that I don’t think “don’t take the bus” is an acceptable outcome. For environmental and urbanist reasons, we want more people to take transit and fewer to drive. That means that we need to make the people who don’t take the bus currently (or in the example I mentioned, don’t take a specific bus route) want to take the bus, which means making it easier for them. You’re right that you can’t go all the way schematic – this post is an attempt to figure out what that balancing act is on the map.

  • KK

    It is not hard to figure out take the damn time and try to learn something, instead of wanting it now it is not a train map where there are only a few lines there are dozens upon dozens of bus routes they all can not fit onto a map such as the metrorail or underground maps.

    Doing so would leave out many of the routes which would cause more problems. A bus map can never succeed as a map similar to the underground unless it is for non local bus service; how would you find out what streets a bus passes if it was similar to the underground map you wouldn’t.

    A better solution for this is get a damn map and learn the city first then get a bus map and learn the bus routes or otherwise dont take the bus.

  • Cullen

    Check out this map from Amsterdam. This is a schematic map the intergrates buses and trams:

    From personal experience I can tell you it’s pretty easy to get around using the map.

  • That map would be great as a google maps implementation or a text messaging service.

  • David

    Another solution might be for Google Maps to include Metro information, as they do in several other cities. About 7 months ago, there was a big push for WMATA to release its information to Google and others:

    And about 3 months ago, they finally did:

    If Google can use that information in Google Maps, and if the information is kept up to date, and if the Circulator and others put their information up for Google also – all big ifs – that could simplify everything. This won’t help names or colors, but it would make Metro much easier to figure out. No need for WMATA to buy a graphic designer if Google will do it for free (and better, knowing both Google and WMATA).

  • AAA figured out how to navigate complicated tripmaking long ago – the TripTic. Several years back, Portland took a cue and sent letters to residents along underused lines to see if anyone would be interested in personalized information. The reaction was suprising, as was the sustained jump in ridership.

    It seems like conveying transit information needs a one-two punch of information. Overall maps with color-coded graphics would be the first step. However, more information needs to be conveyed at stops and even on the bus itself. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when you want to alight at the closest “stick in the road” stop without knowing the full lay of the land. Perhaps the quest is not the perfect map, but the best combinations of conveying information, which include gross scale routes, finer grain information at stops and real time information on the bus.