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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Google also told me that the N22 had been replaced by a Circulator bus.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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