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June 15, 2012
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What Transit Maps Reveal About 7 Major American Cities

Certainly you could opt for a postcard of your favorite city’s key landmarks, but that doesn’t tell you all that much about the city’s culture does it? For a graphical element that speaks to the individuality of each city, all while depicting the landmarks that define it, mail those postcards and instead study a transit map. Some iconic, others unheralded, a transit map offers visitors a fingertip guide to the chaos of a city and arranges it in a way that holds true to the roots of the city.

Whether using a geographical framework (i.e. New York) or a schematic design (known as a diagram and used by most American cities), cities often swirl those ideas together, bending train lines and inserting key landmarks to help tell the story of both transit stations and cultural interest.

<h3>New York</h3>
Always a place to visit and always a new landmark to see, New York’s subway map celebrates tourism like no other. It didn’t always. <a href="http://www.vignelli.com/intro.html">Massimo Vignelli</a> gave New York a famed—yet short-lived—s
New York Always a place to visit and always a new landmark to see, New York’s subway map celebrates tourism like no other. It didn’t always. Massimo Vignelli gave New York a famed—yet short-lived—schematic design in the ‘70s, saying, “All you are conveying is how to go from station A to station B.” That didn’t last long after John Tauranac and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority shifted the map to geographic in 1979. “There are certain landmarks that literally mark the land,” Tauranac says. “The Empire State Building is visible from so many different neighborhoods. I think places like that are important.” The newest version, released in 2010, still holds what many consider minor landmarks, but is also bulked up Manhattan even more—at the expense of outlying boroughs—to make room for tourist-heavy information. The subway map is about far more than stations; it is about landmarks, serving as a guide to the hustle and bustle of NYC.
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<h3>Washington, D.C.</h3>
Vignelli’s schematic spirit lives on strongly in the nation’s capital, as the Italian-born designer advised designer <a href="http://www.lancewyman.com/">Lance Wyman</a> on his 1976 schematic for the Washington Metro, a design th
Washington, D.C. Vignelli’s schematic spirit lives on strongly in the nation’s capital, as the Italian-born designer advised designer Lance Wyman on his 1976 schematic for the Washington Metro, a design that underwent a 2011 tweak without vast changes. To honor D.C.’s role in national history, Wyman included stylized drawings of some major landmarks within The Mall, such as the Washington Monument and the White House, and used The Mall as a center point for orienting travel around the city. The newest rendition even provides a darker green shading for The Mall and this emphasis on government landmarks puts D.C. proper in the limelight, with the outlying suburbs somewhat sidelined—just as in real life. “I had to work very carefully to keep it diagrammatic,” Wyman says. “The bottom line is to keep it as clear as possible.” The color coding, the angled Metro line routes and the system of prominent nested circles representing the stops create a crisp, professional look that has stood the test of time and fits with the proper feel within the nation’s capital.
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<h3>Los Angeles</h3>
Think colorful—like Los Angeles—and clear, especially since the majority of riders don’t have English as their first language. Michael Lejeune, creative director of Metro L.A., says the Go Metro map reflects the brand and the city by
Los Angeles Think colorful—like Los Angeles—and clear, especially since the majority of riders don’t have English as their first language. Michael Lejeune, creative director of Metro L.A., says the Go Metro map reflects the brand and the city by creating a wide-open and colorful depiction. The map covers 3,000 square miles of L.A. County, an oddity for major metro rail maps, and uses the contour of the ocean (we must get reminded of the ocean, mustn’t we?) and a simple white backdrop to let the openness of the space that will continue to fill over the next 25 years pop with the colorful lines—the aqua line was added in 2012. By keeping words to a minimum—there’s no room for multiple translations—the colors distinct and the graphics bare, the map actually plays to the colorful, spread-out diversity that is L.A. County.
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<h3>Chicago</h3>
There’s boldness—almost an industrial feel—to Chicago’s original “L” map, not much different from both the city and the actual “L” train at the time. But as the city has become less industrial, so has the map. When Dennis McClendon design
Chicago There’s boldness—almost an industrial feel—to Chicago’s original “L” map, not much different from both the city and the actual “L” train at the time. But as the city has become less industrial, so has the map. When Dennis McClendon designed the Chicago Transit Authority’s map in the late 1990s he enclosed white dots within thick colored lines and riffed off the famed London Underground map with powerful dumbbells to depict station transfers. While the original intention lives on in a redesign (apart from McClendon), the map has surely softened as the city has cultured. The newest map offers a bit more curve in the rail lines, but still accentuates Lake Michigan to the east, plenty enough geography for a city always living in conjunction to the prominent lake.
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<h3>Boston</h3>
The typical European layout of Boston put a requirement on a hybrid map of both rail and bus routes, says Ken Dumas, designer of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority rapid transit map, most recently updated in 2010. Boston's touris
Boston The typical European layout of Boston put a requirement on a hybrid map of both rail and bus routes, says Ken Dumas, designer of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority rapid transit map, most recently updated in 2010. Boston's tourist industry and major influx of students puts simplicity at a premium. “Because we have such a crazy city and don’t have streets laid out in a geometric pattern, to lay (a map) on top of a street grid wouldn’t make sense," Dumas says. "If I could get a tourist to understand (the map), I can get anybody to understand it.” But with so many folks not living in Boston (tourists, students, suburb dwellers) using the map, he also brought in a touch of geographic reality, showing the distance between stations. And that coastal character was important too. “Can’t we show the Charles River?” Dumas asks. “We should be showing the shoreline and the river.”
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<h3>San Francisco</h3>
San Francisco worried only about its rail customers when <a href="http://www.lohneswright.com/">Lohnes + Wright</a> designed its original simple Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) map. While the map has gone from schematic in the 1970s t
San Francisco San Francisco worried only about its rail customers when Lohnes + Wright designed its original simple Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) map. While the map has gone from schematic in the 1970s to geographic in the 1990s, the current fully schematic look helps those in San Francisco manage the system, all while keeping them fully aware of where they are in orientation to the water, an obviously key component of transportation in the Bay Area. “The main purpose of the map is to assist riders in navigating the BART system,” says designer Bart Wright. “So many geographical features were removed because they were irrelevant to this purpose.”
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<h3>Philadelphia</h3>
Philadelphia has history. And you see that from its transit rail map. With the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority around since 1964, it had to embrace subway and trolley lines in existence for more than 100 years. While Phil
Philadelphia Philadelphia has history. And you see that from its transit rail map. With the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority around since 1964, it had to embrace subway and trolley lines in existence for more than 100 years. While Philly sticks strictly in the schematic world for its map, choosing to forgo the opportunity to really embrace its historical landmarks, part of that is predicated on the fact that as the city grew, transit grew and Philadelphia’s expansive system of commuter rail, subway lines and historic trolleys must all gel onto the same map amidst the swerving, weaving flow of the city.
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<h3>New York</h3>
Always a place to visit and always a new landmark to see, New York’s subway map celebrates tourism like no other. It didn’t always. <a href="http://www.vignelli.com/intro.html">Massimo Vignelli</a> gave New York a famed—yet short-lived—s
New York Always a place to visit and always a new landmark to see, New York’s subway map celebrates tourism like no other. It didn’t always. Massimo Vignelli gave New York a famed—yet short-lived—schematic design in the ‘70s, saying, “All you are conveying is how to go from station A to station B.” That didn’t last long after John Tauranac and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority shifted the map to geographic in 1979. “There are certain landmarks that literally mark the land,” Tauranac says. “The Empire State Building is visible from so many different neighborhoods. I think places like that are important.” The newest version, released in 2010, still holds what many consider minor landmarks, but is also bulked up Manhattan even more—at the expense of outlying boroughs—to make room for tourist-heavy information. The subway map is about far more than stations; it is about landmarks, serving as a guide to the hustle and bustle of NYC.

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