Is it possible to make one map of all of NYC’s transit services?
One night, years ago I was heading out to Jamaica to catch a bus to get to eastern Queens. I was sitting cross from the subway map, just staring at it contemplating…
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The Subway Map. Much discussed, much stared at, much debated, and much redesigned. It’s fun, for a certain type of a person, to look at it and to think of the alternatives.
Then the thought hit me: If I can transfer to the bus for free, why isn’t there a map that shows where to connect with buses? Why does the system map only show subways?
Why bother showing LIRR stations, MetroNorth stations and all the ferry lines? Why are arterial roads, like Flatlands Avenue and the Cross Bronx Expressway, shown? Why is the Hugh Carey Tunnel and the Triboro Bridge shown?
Why aren’t local buses, crosstown buses and the new fancy SBS buses shown? Could the whole bus system fit over a subway map, especially in the areas that aren’t served by the subway?
The whole system of buses and subways could fit on one map. It could work. Right?
And so I started out on a long slow journey to make one single map. This diagram would put together all NYC transit services that are included with an Unlimited MetroCard.
Millions of NYC residents live beyond a 15 minute walk to a subway station. Hundreds of thousands of people start their commute by boarding a bus and then transferring to the subway. This is a map for us.
One complex transit map, for one complex transit-reliant city.
Yes, it is possible to get all of NYC’s buses and subway lines onto one map. Click to expand.
Swipes for years
In 1998, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) introduced free transfers from bus lines to the subway, and from the subway to bus lines. A year later, the monthly and weekly Unlimited MetroCards were introduced.
With this new fare structure, NYC transit riders gained the ability to freely transfer between the subway and buses. This eliminated the “double fare zone” for riders who lived far beyond a subway station. It gave people who lived and worked near a subway station an alternative to riding the train. The Subway and Bus system were one system.
But 18 years after the creation of the single fare zone, the system has never been presented as one. The MTA rarely advertises the fare integration between subway and bus. It doesn’t announce transfers to bus lines at subway stations. It doesn’t have a single map that shows all of its services together.
Today, the transit system is two different systems. People take the subway all the time: for commuting, for pleasure, for dates, for errands, to get out of the rain, whatever. Subway ridership has reached record levels. At the same time, bus ridership has dropped.
Do riders not know they have other options? Options that they already pay for with their Unlimited MetroCards or via the free transfers with their pay-per-ride card?
Or are they are so flummoxed by the bus they just ignore it? Is bus service so unreliable that people with other options don’t want to touch it? And for people who live past subway territory, are they aware of all the bus options they have?
We’ve all done this: you just kinda stare at the subway map while you’re waiting for the train. Just stare. You’ve got time to kill, so you stare. And you think, “Oh, that’s where Jefferson Street is”, or “I wonder what Avenue X looks like?” or “There’s two DeKalb Avenues that are nowhere near each other”, or “If this L train doesn’t show up, could I take the 4 or the 5 to the J to A back to the L to get home?”.This staring and pondering is how people learn their subway options.
Bus riders don’t get this option. When you’re standing around waiting for a bus, there aren’t maps. At bus stops around the city, there are no bus map. In Jamaica, Pelham Bay Park, or Flushing, the biggest bus hubs in the city, you won’t find bus maps near the bus stops. Even at the new Select Bus Service stations, there’s no bus map.
In the places where people are waiting there to ride the bus, you can’t find the map to navigate it
And let’s talk about the bus maps that do exist. They’re real maps, so they show every, single turn and maneuver. They label everything. It’s a lot of information to take in. They’re great, actually — for bus drivers.
But they’re clunky and dense and, in my opinion, not pleasant to look at. It’s hard to follow lines across the map. Dense areas are murky and then shown off to the side as inset maps. Lines that travel across boroughs are easy to lose.
And buses that travel from borough to borough change color from map to map. There’s a separate map for each borough. If you’re taking a bus from Brooklyn to Queens, or the Bronx to Upper Manhattan, you need to look at two separate maps.
An extract from the MTA’s Bus Map. Click to expand.
In my opinion, the current bus maps fails from a way-finding standpoint. Subway stations are tiny specks. Bus terminals and destinations aren’t clear. Route directions aren’t clear. Transfers between routes and to the subway aren’t clear.
An extract from my map, the Bullet Map. Click to expand.
To make a bus map that’s a clear to read and as a good subway diagram, I needed a good base layer. My theory is that people in NYC know 1) major streets and 2) subway stations. Most people can triangulate and figure out how to get around knowing those two things.
I started making a bus diagram and a subway diagram at the same time. For the subway diagram, I included the new Select Bus Service lines. The frequency and speed is close enough to subway service that it’s proper to put them together, plus the MTA hasn’t released a map showing all SBS lines. So it’s an added bonus of this project.
I laid out these parameters around my map.
1) Know the Audience
My audience is people who live in NYC and who frequently ride the transit system. This isn’t a tourist map.
Jamaica and its immediate environs on the Bullet Map. Click to expand.
2) Make it Simple
The riding public doesn’t need to know every single turn and every single street. But they need to know most of the turns and most of the streets. Relative distance relationships between lines and stations is important to communicate.
3) But not too Simple
Focus on Subway lines, streets with buses, arterials and secondary streets. Include the relevant info needed to help people get around like expressways, rivers and big parks.
4) Stay in bounds
Include only services that are paid with an Unlimited MetroCard or offer the free transfer with a Pay-per-Ride MetroCard.
This includes the services of the NYC Subway, all NYC Transit and MTA Bus lines, NICE Bus (Long Island) and Bee-Line Bus (Westchester). But it excludes PATH, LIRR, MNR, Express Buses and EDC Ferries.
An extract from the Bullet Map. Click to expand.
5) Use clear design
Create one graphic system that works for both the subways and buses. Be true to existing NYCT standards for route bullets, typesetting and language:
1. Use station name + neighbourhood to denote a terminal;
2. No abbreviated names. Properly label stations regardless of how much space could be saved by dropping all the, say, “Av” or “St”.;
3. No inset maps for dense areas – the densest parts of a transit diagram are the most important;
4. Display everything at one scale, together.
Another extract from the Bullet Map. Click to expand.
So here it is: a full NYC Transit system map. All of those hundreds of bus lines and subway stations, transit for everybody in NYC, together on one map.
First up, here’s the Subway & Select Bus Diagram:
The Subway & Select Bus Service Map. Click to expand.
Here’s Lower Manhattan:
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The Bronx, with its strange roads and curious topography, was easy to map:
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Queens is mess but a spread out mess. Like the Bronx, its arterials and routes create a grid as well.
Queens is really three systems: Western Queens, Northern Queens and Southern Queens. It caused some difficulty in laying it over the subway and then shoehorning into one. But the diffused nature of Queens gives enough opportunity to fix things to make it all fit:
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But then I got to Brooklyn.
Within Brooklyn, there are many unique conditions. Areas where buses run on one way streets. Areas where several bus lines share one street. The uncomfortable junctions of the various different street grids. The dozens of routes that jump from grid to grid.
Brooklyn has the most complex set of bus route info by a long stretch. Its street network is composed of six different street grids; then these grids needs to connect to Western Queens and Southern Queens. The subway lines then need to relate to Manhattan. It’s difficult to rationalise all that into a simplified diagram.
I started in Brooklyn, gave up, started other boros, discovered how easy they were, thought I was doing something wrong with Brooklyn, returned to Brooklyn, gave up and started again. Eventually, I got there:
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Brooklyn’s street layout requires the need for an incremental angle grid. This influenced how the rest of the city would be laid out.
I started out using 45/90 angles. But I found this to be too rigid to accurately display the entire city. Then I switched to 15/30/45/90 degree angles, but found that to be too messy and random appearing.
Then I tried a 30/60/90 set of angles – but I suffered from losing the snap of having a 45 degree line.
I ended up landing on 22.5/45/90 degrees angles. That 22.5 is the magic number that made this project work. It affords the right subset of minor angled lines at 22.5/67.5/112.5 degrees. This kept the map looking neat enough.
The entire thing.
This project started with the thesis of “make it fit and make it look good”. I’d say that, without too much patting myself on the back, that this was accomplished. I’d love to hear feedback on design choices, errors and opinions.
The other questions – of actually getting people to ride the bus moe, making the system more efficient and desirable – are best left to the City’s Fathers and Mothers and the MTA. There is only so much capacity in our subway system, and most of it is used up. To transport masses of people, we must look to the surface.
But New York, here’s your subway and bus system together in one map, for the first time. Step lively to the surface and the ride the bus, NY.
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