Rachel Berger | Essays

A Makeover for the BART Map

The old BART map and the new re-designed BART map

In mid-September, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) released a redesigned map of its commuter rail system. Unlike the notorious 1972 Massimo Vignelli redesign of the New York City subway map, the new BART map didn't make much of a splash in graphic design circles. I learned about it from Facebook, where a friend linked to a blog post maligning the new design for flattening the curve in San Francisco's Mission Street. The blogger called the change a "slight upon the history of this city." But the new BART map flattens more than the bend in the Mission District: with the purity of perfect geometry, it forces a comb through the old map's wild tangle of rail lines.

I moved to San Francisco a few weeks after the new map began appearing in BART stations and might have forgotten all about the blogger's call to "preserve the curve," but a slow roll-out — stations have been updated but train cars have not — has meant that a rider is often confronted with a jarring side-by-side comparison of the old and the new. Seen together, the maps look like a cartographic version of a reality TV makeover show ("She's all cleaned up and ready for her big date, folks!"), and represent a long-standing debate in transit map design: geography versus geometry.

The New York City subway plan is probably the most familiar example of a major transit map drawn in the geographic style. Major parks, waterways, and landmarks appear, and transit lines snake across land and water in a broad approximation of their true paths. The five boroughs are significantly out-of-scale, with Manhattan expanding and Staten Island shrinking to accommodate the relative complexity of mass transit in each, but the subway map is geographically accurate enough for tourists to think they can get by using it as a street map.

The plan for the London Underground map, conversely, is the quintessential geometric map. It's a schematic diagram showing the relative positions of stations along the lines without regard to their true physical location. Visually similar to electrical circuit diagrams, the map's lines are drawn at 45 or 90-degree angles. Underground employee Harry Beck devised this diagrammatic approach when he set out to redesign London's transit map in the early 1930s. The technique revolutionized network mapping, and many major cities subsequently adopted geometric mapping for their transit systems.

Current NYC subway map

Current London Underground map

Typically, map users crave geography while map designers prefer geometry. The old BART map, with its bends and curves, is more geographically accurate than the new version, but the new map is hardly a radical departure into flatland. Bearing a strong resemblance to a BART planning map from the 1960s, the new version is something of a return to the past. New York and London have also faced the push-and-pull of these conflicting mapping paradigms (the Vignelli subway map, for example, failed because it was too geometric for public tastes,) and last September, the Thames was quietly removed from the London Underground map. Unfavorable media attention and public disapproval caused the river to be reinstated in the map's next edition, released two months later.

1960s BART planning map

1972 Vignelli NYC subway map MTA New York City Subway

Transit maps hold a vital position in the visual culture of the places they represent: they often frame a visitor's introduction to a new city and are the focus of the weary commuter's stare day after day, year after year. A transit map provides a set of instructions for how to traverse a city. It influences behavior, prescribing our movements by guiding the paths we take and in so doing, has the power to actually shape a city. A transit system's existence is objective, because it is material: but a transit system's map — whether it is geographically or geometrically motivated — is subjective. It interprets a transit system according to the perspective of its designer. Harry Beck, an electrical draftsman, drew a map that looked like a circuit diagram. The hand that draws the map is making innumerable choices and solving innumerable problems. Some are aesthetic, such as what colors to use, while others are tactical — how to treat the convergence of multiple lines in a congested area, for example.

Detail of the old BART map

The new BART map is certainly easier to read. Some well-trained designer took a weed wacker to the typography, and he or she knew that there's something essentially appealing about brightly colored lines running in parallel. When I first saw the new map, I breathed a Modernist's sigh of relief. As a graphic designer, I couldn't have abided my newly adopted city using the old map. It was embarrassingly messy, almost disgusting, the way yellow slithers up toward Pittsburg/Bay Point after wriggling between and under red and orange. Like a child drawing, the old BART map could take you on a flight of fancy, but wouldn't get you to and from work.

If I consider the old BART map in the context of the visual culture of the San Francisco Bay Area, I am no longer certain of its inferiority. Historically, two of the major touchstones of graphic art in the Bay Area are psychedelic poster art and Emigre magazine and type foundry. The swirling hand lettering of the "Cosmic '60s" concert posters of Victor Moscoso and Zuzana Licko's experimental typefaces like Citizen and Base 12 challenged accepted norms and marked the Bay Area as a safe space for graphic play. Today, widespread mural art, graffiti, and campy Victoriana ensure that San Francisco's built environment is one of America's most colorful, and most DIY urban destinations. A sense of visual whimsy extends to the Muni, San Francisco's light rail and bus system and BART's transit cousin. Muni's logo, designed by Walter Landor in the 1970s, is informally known as "the worm" and borrows directly from 1960s poster art. Muni's sunny color palette and knocked-out lower case typography reads as retro-unhip-hip enough to feature in The New Ugly. The old BART map's visual language — snaking, hand-drawn lines, typographic naïveté — begins to make sense.

Victor Moscoso's Flower Pot and San Francisco Victorians, photo by Kristin Marie Enns-Kavanagh

Walter Landor's Muni logo

Ultimately, how a transit map looks communicates information about the people who designed it, the people for whom it was designed, and the place it represents. Certain transit maps have come to symbolize the very spirit and character of a place. In Metro Maps of the World, author Mark Ovenden claims it "difficult to imagine an image more ingrained into the very psyche of a population" than the London Underground map. Ovenden also maligns the "slavish topographic accuracy" of the old BART map. Yet loyalty to topography is what gave the old map its unique visual qualities. Besides, the new BART map engages slavish geometric inaccuracy. The BART system, with five lines and forty-three stations, is simple. The new map feels inauthentic. Lines have been straightened for straightness's sake, not to solve design problems. The BART map gained legibility but lost a rare hectic energy. Now that the old map is nearly gone, I realize how wonderful it has been to be confronted by a poetic, painterly map, by a map that makes me uncomfortable.

Posted in: Infrastructure, Social Good

Comments [20]

While my "disrespecting history" comment was tongue in cheek, I do agree much of the BART map needed to be straightened. However, the Mission curve is significant on both a city and human scale.

Also, this section of the vaunted London Tube map vs the same relative area on the BART map may surprise you. (That page also has my suggestion for a truly simplified map.)

This is the same old (almost boring) argument which can never be won. It is between a diagram and a map. Both have their merits and bot have disadvantages. European transit systems are often integrated, incorporating different modes of transport, making "true" representation very difficult. The closer you are to the real environment, i.e. above ground and traveling at the speed of other traffic, the more people need a geographic representation. A lot of passengers are actually pretty bad at map-reading although they would never admit it. Diagrams are thus fine for rapid transit, but local people will always ask for detail that cannot be shown in diagrammatic style. Nostalgia is not a good reason to stick to curves that are irrelevant for a journey underground. A diagram for BART is not about the journey, but about connections and destinations.

BTW: i designed the diagram for Berlin Transit in 1992, incorporating 23 subway and railway lines. Passengers here love it.

erik spiekermann

Dear Design Observer,
Thanks so much for this insightful and detailed article. Maps are one of my passions, as are all-things underground, and public transit. This article neatly addresses all the issues. Diagram vs. map is salient, so too is the experience of movement, location, destination... for which we do not as yet have a layered map/diagram.

Off, topic a bit; can we invent a sort-of compass (diagram) map (detailed geography) that also contains a pyscho-geographic element (not google maps with commercial callouts, but the feeling, time of day or night of the district).

I suggest as a model Brian McGrath's http://www.skyscraper.org/timeformations/intro.html and my approach to nightime walking http://lenischwendinger.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/public-lighting-walk-with-leni-video-shoot-preview/
Leni Schwendinger

Take a look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map–territory_relation which might extend this discussion.

What types of information to represent our reality is essential to the our ability to navigate the territory that delineates both our physical freedom and limitations? If the curve is missing, does that mean that a choice has also been removed?

The new diagrammatic map is designed for a commuter whose decisions are confined to the BART system (how many stops between A and B; which line to take; where to transfer, etc.) The BART takes care of your decisions for you—just sit tight and it'll get you to the stop you want. But the map is grafted onto a map of actual terrain with place names that signify a locale. Flattening out some iconic characteristics actually minimized the BART's connection to the city. Instead of highlighting the BART as a vehicle to connect actual locations, the new map makes the BART a standalone system, as if the journey on the BART is isolated from the subsequent one in the streets.

It's too bad, because one thing information graphics can do is to enhance our understanding of relationships and what they mean to us.
Julietta Cheung

The new BART map is certainly an improvement but it's strangely half-assed: they simplified the routes but overlaid them on a literal cartography of the bay & peninsula. This just calls attention to the necessary distortions like SFO (which juts out into the bay) looking like it's 3 miles inland. They could have avoided that dissonance had they held to their concept and simplified every part of the map.

PS. Congrats for the national attention, Johnny0!

Erik Spiekermann writes (in his break from not stealing sheep): "This is the same old (almost boring) argument which can never be won."

But it is also not purely a design argument between people's expectations of a map and the need to represent transit routes. It's a political issue.

Witness the outrage at the loss of the Thames cited here. There's no reason in terms of communication or function for the Thames to appear on the map; tourists can't orient by it and residents already know where it is. Removing the Thames, straightening curves, deleting geographic detail lends the perception of destroying space. (Why does this remind me of China Miéville's The City and The City?)

You also have internal political dissension in departments that create and contract out the creation of these maps. Some people in these departments find geometric representation to be design-for-designers, despite the many decades of use by regular people with no trouble. That's clearly the reason for the mish-mosh of NYC Transit Authority maps, which are indecipherable at times to residents and visitors alike.

You mention the Overton book in passing, but I think it's a must have for anyone interested in the history and development of transit maps. I've spent hours studying it, and my 5-year-old son was equally fascinated about it.
Glenn Fleishman

I suspect, I have a preference for diagrammatic representation: I think I understand it better. And regarding London Underground's map, I use it regularly, so don't have any problem understanding the relationship between it and the space above ground. Perhaps it works because you are underground and can't see where it goes. I suppose the fact that the River Thames has, historically, been part of the map leads to uproar when it was removed; besides, knowing that a station is north or south of the river does seem useful. Having said that, there is diagrammatic map of the main inter-city rail routes which is broadly accurate - but you need an understanding of the geography to fully understand it (here's a link: http://www.trainweb.org/girr/england/rail_map.gif )

The BART map re-design does seem to bring the map into the twentieth century which, aesthetically at least, is a good thing.
mark Cotter

Welcome to San Francisco, Rachel.

I moved to SF from Chicago 15 years ago. (I now am a suburbanite.) My observation is that this argument is typical of SF.

Ask yourself why are they still working on the Bay Bridge 20 years after Loma Prieta? (That was the one that collapsed on itself.) LA finished reconstruction after North Ridge EARLY. There are a thousand examples just like that.

It's part of our character to argue about these things. And we all love it and hate it. It's San Francisco. . .



I agree that the improved geometricity is not only visually appealing but also highly functional. Additionally, the reduced land mass/water contrast renders the BART lines more legible, again serving function. I would however would have liked to see fair rates incorporated in terms of zones a la the current London map. I find the fair calculations quite the mystery/inaccessible, and this could have been easily rectified here.
cameron ewing

I did notice the map change when doors of my BART train opened. But honestly, I couldn't remember if the map was new or if there were always multiple versions. This is a problem in much of our public design schemes. We always seem to be trying to satisfy every corner of our neuroses and end up over-compensating, watering everything down to incoherence.

The London Underground map and countless others work because, geometric or geographic, they are highly disciplined and highly informative, even with far more complex parts and layers -- and able to help foreigners and locals alike.

The problem in San Francisco, and a lot of our cities, are overwrought designs that go beyond just maps. From the first time I tried to use a BART ticket machine, to my last visit, I had no clue where to put my money or how to get a ticket out, despite a screen full of words and an earful of bells going off. I spent 3 days on my first visit without knowing that MUNI wasn't just buses and included underground streetcars. From reading the countless BART brochures, I could barely discern that another system existed. THAT IS RIDICULOUS. SF is a world class city with highly educated people. But I've been in better systems that illiterate people have no problem navigating. New York has the same problem. There is a lack of elegance that denies just enough for the brain to take over, and provides exactly enough to move things along.

Especially in a city that aspires to represent unity and equality in citizenship, it would seem that transit riders are being condescended to and short-changed. How can you expect to get more people on the green bandwagon when you provide a system that prevents people from getting on in the first place? The new map may be stylistically more disciplined than the old one, but cleaned up, it just looks anemic by comparison. Take a page from London and organize the hell out of your system.

I'm not saying the MUNI trains should become BART trains, but if it's a train map, then why not show all the options available? Find a code of representation that can satisfy the different branding needs. If global bank mergers can do it, then certainly one city can. Fix your machines. Simplify. Take a real critical eye to the whole system, not just a map. As someone else here mentioned, the problem with cleaning up the map only reveals what's glaringly off about it. As designers, we all know we can't just make a map that LOOKS like London. Rather, we need to see WHY AND HOW London WORKS. If we need a few bends in the line, then do it. But I think nostalgia or neuroses will give way the minute our brains are treated to a satisfying synaptic understanding of how to get from Aiport to Embarcadero in as few steps from cash to daylight as possible.
Tim Grrr

The BART map/graph is pretty simple, so either works well. What they really need is more visible station signage.
So many times I'm on a train and tourists can't figure out which station the train is in b/c there are no signs visible from the train.

These new maps are called "spider maps." Having worked in the transit industry and with the cartographer that specializes in them, they are extremely intricate to prepare and studies have shown that commuters like and read them much easier than others. In fact, Austin's transit system is re-designing their maps to use this mapping system as well. This has been in progress for many years and I'm proud to say that I was part of this progress.
Judey Dozeto

I'm a map fan, not a map designer, and I'm a New Yorker as well. And while I liked the design of the 1972 map it simply was not as useful. All of New York breathed a sigh of relief when we got a "real" map in the subway system.

I've been to San Francisco many times, and I'm in Boston twice a month. I know both cities well enough to find my way around, but as a non-native map user I have to say I much prefer geographical maps. One reason Boston is so hard to navigate is because the T map has no relation to the city above. The map is easy enough to use, it just doesn't have much to do with the actual city. It's almost shocking when you turn on the transit layer in Google Maps. The first time I did that was a revelation, and I finally was able to see the relationship between the city and the map of the T.

San Francisco's BART system is much simpler, but as a visitor there's still a huge benefit to having the map match the terrain. It's incredibly useful to see the curves of Market Street on the BART map, it lets you know where you are. A simple subway map is easy to navigate, but if when you walk upstairs you're not sure where you are in the real world, it becomes evident that functionality is more important than how lovely the map is.

As an example, if you're new to Boston and want to get from Chinatown to Boylston you'd look at the subway map and say, "easy, it's only three stops." You'd transfer between train lines twice, but you figure it'd be quick enough so you shrug your shoulders and go for it. However, if you had a "real" map, you'd be able to see that the two stations are just three short blocks apart. The prettiness of the map has lied to you. The truth is that the orange and green lines are less than 1000 feet apart for much of their length and are sometimes much closer, but the MBTA map does not tell you this.

It's simple. Geometric maps don't reflect reality and are therefore less useful. Transit system users know this, map designers don't. The new BART map sure is nice looking but it's lost significant functionality and has also distorted the geography of the city. For a map fan, that's the worst thing you can do with a new map.

I'm not trying to cause trouble, but maps have to be useful. A geometric map is fine for Amtrak or an airline, but you wouldn't commonly make a city bus map with one. I guess I'd say that any map where people would normally use it and then walk needs to at least partially reflect the geography of the city.
Seth Elgart

I recently moved away from the bay area and haven't had the chance to see the new map in person, so I can't say which one I appreciate more. I will say when I did live their I really enjoyed counting stops and looking at the map on the wall trying to figure out exactly where I was on the map while riding the BART. Maybe its the backpacker in me, but being able to pin point exactly where I am on a map and have it be somewhat geographically correct is exciting to me. When I return to the bay area I guess I'll no longer be able to feel that way. Oh well.

I've updated and consolidated my London vs SFO transit map comparison.

London 1, SF 0.

I thought this might be interesting for comparison: I received this BART map as a gift for my birthday last year since I used to live in the Bay Area. It is about 3 x 4 feet, and was found in a shed at my grandparents house. They apparently acquired it in Colorado in the mid-80s; I would guess it is the original system map or pretty close to it. So it looks like BART is getting back to its roots.


Sorry for the reflection; it's screwed to the wall.
Dan Shafer

It's a fascinating debate and one that as many of your posters here say can never be "won" as such because people have different aspirations for what they want from a transit map - and of course aesthetics is entirely objective.

However, given the advance in software in the last decade or so there seems to be a trend for a hybrid answer (or at least several answers) to the conundrum.

One of the best examples of this is Eddie Jabours "KickMap" of the New York Subway (http://www.kickmap.com/about.html)
which stands on the shoulders of many of the great design principles of Massimo Vignelli's iconic 1972 diagram in terms of simplifying the curvaceous route of some lines, while overlaying a thoroughly practical and relatively geographically accurate view of the topographic features at ground level.

Even Eddie admits that this has only really been possible thanks to the power of modern map design software, but what it points us towards IMHO is a future where geography will be "tidied-up" a little. Not to the extremes of say the early Beck diagrams of the Tube (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/clive.billson/tubemaps/1941.html)or the current Moscow Metro (http://www.weva2008.ru/img/moscow_metro_map.jpg) or for that matter the angle-free artistry of the quite extraordinary current Madrid Metro map (http://mappery.com/maps/Madrid-Metro-Map.mediumthumb.jpg) but combining route simplification with certain geographic constants like waterways or green spaces - this is where personally I think the latest BART diagram ("diagramap" perhaps) pulls it off rather well. You can both orient yourself approximately AND follow the routes easily in aesthetically sleek splendour!

Having said all that, the world thankfully diversifies continually and of the more extreme distortions of for example the Tokyo Metro map can be items of sheer graphic joy if nothing else (http://zeroperzero.com/2008/crc.html).

To compare all official urban rail maps against each other, follow Gelnn's advice above and take a look at: http://www.amazon.com/Transit-Maps-World-Mark-Ovenden/dp/0143112651

(Sorry, shameless self-promotion at the end there but we freelance authors need all the shouts we can get!)
Mark Ovenden

1) The BART maps on the trains have a serious omission. They leave out the VTA's light rail lines (San Jose / Santa Clara, near bottom + left of bay). But every other rail system in the region is shown.
2) Some stations (e.g. Market Street Subway [MSS] in SF, downtown Oakland) do have street maps in the concourse area.
3) The signage in numerous places is of poor quality. The MSS's concourses generally fail to make it clear that two systems share the space Yes, there are discrete BART / muni signs and the gates are different. But there isn't anything that shouts at one like a colored inlay in the floor. BART has removed some of the visual cues that told one they were in either Powell (red stripe) or Montgomery (blue stripe) stations' platform level.
Ted King

Ted King

I haven't studied many "spider maps" elsewhere, but I can vouch for them being equally unreadable to map virgin and expert alike here in Austin. (I am familiar with both the transit system [as a daily rider] and various mapping strategies [from my years reading transit maps around the country & across Europe], and still could hardly make sense of what looked rather more like a jellyfish....) It was sad to hear a senior CapMetro staffer hide behind the shield of readability studies - without any apparent convection in their efficacy herself.
Richard Brooks

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