Mapping The Hub of the Transit Universe

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Time-Scale Map of MBTA Commuter Rail, by Stonebrown Design

A little imagination captures the spirit of our transit-obsessed city. No matter how terrible a commute, or uneven the pavement underfoot waiting outside at Yawkey Station, the trainspotter awakens with new take on our century-old infrastructure. Stonebrown Design did just that, again.

You may have seen Stonebrown’s wonderful MBTA subway map from last August. The concept places T lines as spokes surrounding downtown’s hub, and gives accurate portrayals of [ideal] travel times through concentric circles as each line radiates outbound. Peter Dunn, who operates under the Stonebrown moniker, released a second map of the MBCR’s commuter rail network with a similar concept in mind, but has added nuance through varying line widths portraying service frequency and shading connoting fare zones.

I corresponded with Peter Dunn late yesterday to learn more about his background, his approach to data visualization and cartography, and his perspective on Bostonians’ perceptions of their environment when most of us have our heads to our iPhones our entire time on the street.

We Love Beantown: You have created work representing DC and Boston (and some other places) through Stonebrown, though write it’s what you do for fun. What’s the Boston connection, and what’s your day job?

Peter Dunn: I’ve always loved looking at maps, but it was when I learned some graphic design tools while studying cities in grad school that I first thought about making them. At first I was experimenting just to learn the design software, but then I started coming up with new ideas for maps that show places a little differently than ordinary maps. I put a few of these together under the name Stonebrown Design, and then whenever I came up with a new idea and had the time to create it, I added it to the Stonebrown Design portfolio. My day job is with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council; I work with local governments across the Boston region to help them deliver services more efficiently. I just moved to Boston a few months ago, and that’s when I started thinking about the T maps.

WLBT: Most of your designs are geographically agnostic, in the style of Harry Beck’s London Underground maps. What’s your ideal balance of information and geographic cues?

PD: The ideal balance between geographic accuracy and schematic simplicity in a transit diagram is the one that best helps riders use the system. What that balance is will be different in different situations. In London, the streets are a labyrinth and there’s little overall image of the city for orientation. Harry Beck took advantage of that disorder by saying don’t bother thinking about the entire street network, just use this simple transit map. The tube map then became London’s orientation system.

In New York, on the other hand, the street grid is a powerful tool. Even going to a neighborhood for the very first time, you can know where you are in relation to the rest of the city, and how to get home. There, the subway map has to conform more closely to the geography, since that’s what people know. Boston is more like London in this regard. The lines on the T map are fairly abstract, as they should be, but there’s far too much geographic detail in the shoreline. My time-scale maps of Boston aren’t really maps at all. They’re basically graphs, with the lines pointing in directions that roughly correspond to geographic directions so that people recognize them.

We’ve come a long way from baseless abstraction.


WLBT: What were some alternate ways you considered balancing train frequency and station zone numbers?

PD: For my time-scale commuter rail map, showing scheduled travel times was the most important piece of information. Frequency is next in the hierarchy–it should still be quite clear at a glance, but it’s not the first thing to notice. Last are the fare zones. They’re there when you’re looking for them, but it’s for reference. They shouldn’t distract from the other information on the map. I used Transport for London’s map as a model for showing fare zones, but didn’t really find a good model for showing frequency.

WLBT: Are GPS directions making us (us Bostonians, us generally) less engaged in our physical environment?

PD: Well, I think that’s fair to say. One thing I don’t like about GPS is that it narrows your view of the city. Unlike looking at a map, which gives you a glimpse of all the places you’re not going, the using GPS directions focuses you exclusively on the route between points A and B. Of course, we can say the same thing about burying your head in a map instead of looking at the city around you. The beauty of the city is all of the places and people and events you encounter that aren’t planned and you can’t control. Treating that as something for moving through instead of being a part of is a loss. So is mistaking a map of a place for the place itself. But sometimes you just want to get home, and that’s when GPS is a pretty nice thing to have.

WLBT: What is the role of a time-oriented map in an era of ‘waiting time’ countdowns on our smartphones and on station platforms?

PD: The arrival time countdowns are great for planning an individual journey. On a smartphone it tells you if you need to dash out of the party, and in the station it sets expectations so you’re not waiting on edge. Time-scale maps don’t really help with that though. They’re better for getting a general sense of the system. If I live near this station, what might my commute be like? How long will it take me to get to that new restaurant? Subway times can vary widely, and service frequency isn’t guaranteed, so no map is going to help you plan your journey to the minute.

WLBT: You acknowledge on your description of last summer’s T map that it lacks bus routes, which were only recently added to the T’s official map a few years ago. I think the lack of knowledge of crosstown routes is hard to overcome given the T lines are so hub-and-spoke. Any gut reactions to designs that’d help crosstown riders realize, say, Cleveland Circle and Forest Hills are actually connected? Or BU West and Broadway?

PD: In general, the T map is meant to help people get around Boston on the T, so if buses are part of how that happens, they should be included. The buses in Boston do play a particularly important role in circumferential travel, so if people are traveling crosstown then we shouldn’t be sending them to add to the downtown congestion. But I’d add two conditions for inclusion on the T map. First, any service shown on that map has to be frequent. If it only comes every 30 minutes, it’s just not part of the transit system in the same way as the Red Line. And second, those bus routes need a comprehensive wayfinding system that makes them as legible and transparent as the subway. If you take the Green Line to Park Street, you can expect to find signs clearly marking the way to transfer to the Red Line, and then other signs will make clear which direction you should travel for, say, South Station. But if you take the Green Line to Symphony, you’re on your own finding the 1 or the 39 bus routes, and good luck finding out which direction you want to go. Just putting it on the map doesn’t make it part of the transit system; it needs a complete integration.

I excluded these connections to other transportation modes on my maps not because I don’t think they’re important, but because they weren’t part of what I was trying to show. Mine are more data display than usable diagrams. But if you haven’t already, check out Cameron Booth for a great T map redesign.

WLBT: What’s your favorite design element about the official MBTA map itself?

PD: Okay, as a newcomer to Boston, I don’t really have much connection to the T map, and there’s not much I like about it. I suppose I have some fondness for the enlarged bulb of the terminal stations. And some of the older-style diagrams of individual lines you see in some stations and trains have a starkness that I find sort of appealing.