(re)designing a NKY transit map

March 11th, 2013

It’s been a few months since I posted my first attempt at a transit map for Northern Kentucky, and I’m starting to get thoroughly dissatisfied with it. If you’re a designer, you’re probably pretty familiar with this feeling. You make something decent enough but every time you look at it it gets a little weaker and a little rougher around the edges. No one knows something’s flaws like it’s creator! Anyway, I need to structure my thoughts before I dive into a complete redesign of the map, so I thought I’d share them.

Here’s my initial design from October 2012:

Northern Kentucky transit map of Downtown Covington and Newport

I’m seeing this design now as the first step in creating a transit map: discovering the logical structure of the system. I realize now that I did this same thing with the frequency map, getting ahead of myself and publishing an ugly but logical framework before attempting a much more finished version:

old cincinnati transit map

This is still floating around the internets… :-/

So here are the things I’ve learned from the northern Kentucky transit mapping process so far:

This map isn’t finished yet because I have some major problems with it:

That’s what’s wrong. What’s been tried before? Here’s the official map from TANK:

TANK transit system map

I think the strongest thing on here is TANK’s logo. Clearly though this map has it’s own issues but I won’t spend much time on them here. The Downtown inset presents some of the same problems as the big map: poor color choice, unclear overlapping lines, ambiguous routing. Particular to the full map is a dramatic overemphasis on suburban and rural areas necessitated by it’s topographical accuracy.

TANK downtown map inset

Meanwhile, 180 degrees away, we have a largely decontextualized and entirely diagrammatic map from a few years back, completed as an exercise by TANK’s planner, Tim Bender.

TANK transit cartogram

Tim, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this. I think it’s pretty awesome!

It’s about as far away from the previous map as it’s possible to be, and as far as functionality goes, it has the opposite problems. Of course, this map wasn’t designed for functionality, but as an exercise in understanding system topology. Where the first is too topographically specific, this one is too vague. Where the first is topologically ambiguous, this one is precise. Where the official map is perhaps too homely to attract attention, this one might place too much emphasis on consistent design. I’m particularly loving the colored classifications of lines by type and area served.

Then there’s the frequency map I made circa 2011:

Northern Kentucky transit frequency

In my completely biased opinion, this is at least in theory a decent hybrid of topological and topographic accuracy. However because of the scale of this map(about a quarter of an 8.5″x11″ page) and it’s overall more simplified design, It wasn’t able to show a great many important details. Downtown Cincinnati’s and Downtown Covington’s complex routing are each treated as points for the sake of space and simplicity. Only a small diagram on the other side shows where main Downtown Cincinnati stops are. The lines themselves are pretty simplified too. The #25 for example takes a more complicated course through Covington that has been simplified here.

As a side note: I’ve had a few people criticise this map for not showing enough of TANK’s services, but I think the proportions are actually pretty generous to TANK. While TANK may serve a large geographic area, it has fewer lines, less frequent services, and serves only about one sixth as many passengers. One sixth as many people get about a quarter of the total space, a measure that disadvantages SORTA’s services.

What can we learn? What needs to be in a functional and reasonably complete map of Northern Kentucky’s transit services? These are things I’ll be keeping in mind as I work on this project over the next few months.

I’ll keep y’all updated as things progress!

2 responses to “(re)designing a NKY transit map”

  1. TBender says:

    I hate to say this but trip planners are killing system maps. I’m not sad about it; the system is inherently confusing. Imagine how it must be for someone new to the system to look at the system map and figure out what line to take. The individual schedule maps are much better, but as you’ve pointed out there are still some issues.

    If everyone carried a smart phone we could just get rid of paper schedules and system maps altogether. Google Maps and others like it do a magnificent job displaying a simple routing solution. The reality is that we’re doing a dis-service to a large segment of our ridership by focusing more on that and less on system maps. There are people who either by choice or means will never have access to the same personal technology that you and I will. But they still deserve the same information.

    I wish there was a better way, but it looks like we’re stuck with system maps and all of the challenges that come with them. I really think what you’re doing, on your own time and own dime, is a great thing for this city. I know it’s not easy, but you have my respect for sure.

    Also, it’s great to see my map being used. The first think I’ll be working on in NC is a project re-visualizing transit headways on a system map. I’ll probably be drawing ideas from your maps; they were the first that came to mind and probably as good as any of the world-class transit map makers.


    • Nate Wessel says:

      Thanks Tim ^-^

      I’m glad to help out, though I certainly wouldn’t complain if a transit agency wanted to commission me to complete a system map or schedule map redesign ;-) It’s my understanding that SORTA paid 20K for their last map redesign and in my professional opinion it’s almost useless. 20K could keep me fed and sheltered for more than a year!! And I’ve already produced a more useful map of the same system…

      Time for a post on the continued relevance of non-computerized cartography!