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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.