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Moscow Metro Map and Usability of Public Transportation Maps
Moscow's redesigned metro map.

Moscow's redesigned metro map. Image via Art. Lebedev Studio.

Moscow just released its new metro map. We thought it would be interesting to write about the most well-designed maps of various cities’ public transit systems. Moscow’s new map took four years to develop, according to the design firm behind it, Art. Lebedev Studio. Its design is meant to be scalable to various sizes and complexity. A lot attention was paid to graphically representing the intersections of various transit lines.

Graphic designer Cameron Booth, who redesigned Washington, D.C.’s Metro map as a personal project (it’s not publicly in use), answered a few of our questions about mapping. First off, Booth says transit maps are not really maps at all; they are “diagrams that show connections between points and not the accurate geography of an area.”  New York City’s subway map is the major exception to this rule.

Excellent Maps Around the World

Design is subjective and people from different cultures and backgrounds interpret maps differently. We asked Booth about his favorite maps or “diagrams.” A well-designed map, according to Booth, should be “understandable across national and cultural boundaries.” Some maps, for example, use iconography to situate the rider in the city itself, as is the case with Haifa’s subway system, called Carmelit, built in 1959 in coastal Israel.

Haifa's subway system.

Haifa's subway system.

The iconic London Underground diagram is so well done that cyclists are advocating for something comparable to it to show bikes routes—nothing short of a unified cycle map of the city. There’s also an excellent mobile app of the map. But what makes public transportation maps (biking maps included) so useful are the simple ways to navigate without planning ahead. For London, Booth notes the use of “ticks” for station and white circles for transit stations. Booth also highlights Paris, Sydney and most major German cities as having excellent metro maps.

A section of London's Tube Map, showing some of the key features Booth highlights.

A section of London's Tube Map, showing some of the key features Booth highlights.

A small section of the Paris map.

The Paris Metro map is also known for its clarity and simplicity.

An image of the Sydney map, which also shows the Ferry schedule and route frequency.

An unofficial design of the Sydney transit map that shows the Ferry schedule and route frequency.

Universal Symbology, Transit Usage and Smart Phones

Using icons and illustrations on maps is important, since passenger and pedestrian symbols are universally understood in the mapping world, regardless of transit users’ ability to read. Booth says iconography should give the map or diagram its own style, but all should be “simple enough to be easily understood.” Washington, D.C.’s Metro maps shows a boxy car to indicate parking at stations, which can be confusing, since there is already a universal parking symbol, the letter “P” in a circle or square, to indicate this.

A section of the Washington, DC metro system that shows the parking symbology and the uses of a logo to show the metro's intersection with the MARC train.

A section of the Washington, DC metro system that shows the parking symbology and the uses of a logo to show the metro's intersection with the MARC train.

The rise of technological tools like GPS-enabled smart phone apps and Google Maps that incorporate public transit information makes maps more accessible to general users. GOOD Magazine points out that well-designed maps might encourage more people to use public transportation because it requires less planning and more information. Booth agrees, saying, “a map or diagram that lacks clarity or informational hierarchy is hard to use and will deter or confuse casual users.”

In the Age of Google, What is the Importance of a Physical Map?

Booth thinks there will always be a market for physical maps. There’s an intangibility to the printed map, he says, especially when it’s highly useful. For example, the fold-out New York Bike Map comprehensively maps all the biking routes, and the ability to hold up this map to visually navigate the city is can be preferable to any tiny digital screen on a phone.

For Booth, digital maps are most useful for seeking a specific set of search functions, specifically instant, targeted information. And tourists and other people who have less of a destination and rather want to “experience the city” might prefer a printed map. Booth says, “physical maps are familiar, reassuring objects, and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.”

Maps of public transportation around the world certainly contain a number of similarities but it’s interesting to see the different approaches to displaying this information.

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  • I am continuously searching online for posts that can facilitate me. Thanks!

  • Hi Frieda,

    Thanks for the comment. What I meant to say is that there’s an intangible feeling (immeasurable/not precisely identifiable) that a person gets from holding a physical map. But you raise a good point. I should have been clearer in my word choice.

  • Frieda

    Hi – just a question – do you, in the paragraph about Physical Maps in the age of Google, perhaps mean “a tangibility” instead of “an intangibility” about paper maps? Maybe you meant to say that even good digital maps have that “intangibility” problem – with which I definitely agree!

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  • Trying to follow metro maps, the TransMilenio bus system in Bogota, came up with a colored map Nevertheless, there are no single services, as many routes connect the the different lines, reducing the need for tranfers. There are also express services, that do not stop at every station. Moreover, there are services that operate in some specific times of the day (peak hours) and different services for sundays and holidays. TransMilenio has taken full advantage of the flexibility of buses, which has resulted in the large throughput (more than 43,000 passengers per hour per direction, with an average commercial spped of 28 km/h) and ridership (1.7 million passengers per day in 84 km of buslanes)
    These complex features creates a challange: it is not possible to present all the routes in a single map. Technology helps the users to find their route (see route planner, and there are specific maps for each station (with only the services stopping there) as well as dynamic information systems indicating the routes arriving to the stations in real time. Still, it requires a little training and some help from other fellow passengers to find your way around.
    As BRT is mass transit, it needs good information systems, just like the metro systems. Good to review BRT maps around the world.

  • Thanks for the great survey. Here at Light Projects LTD we are developing strategies to map the nighttime environment – lighting, that is. For those interested and comments please see – covering a LightWalk in Washington D.C. and links to public lighting theory articles.
    Question – which images could be the universally understood “icons and illustrations” to symbolize light?

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  • Jon Petrie

    Metropolitan Vancouver (BC) transit map shows the buses to the important ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay originating at Burrard station … in fact buses starts further east close to the City Center station on the new Canada line that serves the airport (City Center). Tourists (with baggage perhaps) going to Horseshoe Bay following the map will waste 10 minutes getting to Burrard Station instead of getting off at City Center. And then since the map makes no distinction between the express bus (257) and the local bus (250) which follow rather different routes — contrary to the map, they are likely to again be mislead and waste perhaps another 20 minutes.
    For the map

  • Rick

    Interesting article. The US transit industry has come a long way in developing their customer information materials. There are many examples in the US that rival European maps and diagrams for excellent design and usefulness. Because the US transit industry has just begun to focus more closely on this very important aspect of customer service, some of these products aren’t well known….yet. Here are links to some examples. They include rail maps and Spider Maps (bus connections maps) from US transit agencies:

    1. Los Angeles Metro Station Connection Maps

    2. A modified diagrammatic approach to showing all LA Metro service with a 12 minute or better service frequency

    3. Chicago Rail Map

    4. Santa Barbara MTD

    There are many agencies using the same at-stop/stop-specific approach that Europe uses at the bus stop and rail stations. The images aren’t online but are at the stops…where they should be. If anyone is interested, I can give you fairly comprehensive list of the agencies emloying this very effective strategy.

  • Jo

    I lived in Moscow for a little while, and this does look like an improvement – it used to be quite confusing which stations were interchanges, complicated by the fact that in some cases there are identically-named stations on different lines, whereas in other places the different stations at an interchange all have different names. And if you’ve never seen photos of the amazing stations hidden beneath Moscow, you must take a look –

  • Hi Carrie, we’re pretty much transit nerds over here and we love that book – it was definitely an inspiration for this post. Speaking of good books, I’ve been browsing The Endless City when I have time.

  • Carrie Denning

    There is an awesome (transit nerd, also) book called, Transit Maps of the World, and it literally goes through various transit systems and all of their historical map iterations. check it out.

  • I’m partial to the Santiago Metro system map. It’s very easy to read and navigate. In a few years we’ll see the addition of two more lines making it even more interesting. The São Paulo Metrô system map, on the other hand, could use some work as well.

  • Eric

    Great post. I’ve been collecting transit maps in my travels for years (transit nerd). I find the London system has the best comprehensive map collection — system maps underground and neighborhood maps up top. I’ve never yet been lost. Paris is great, too. My hometown — Boston — could use some work.