I have a theory that I don’t think is going to be very well liked: Rail transit is as popular as it is in large part because it tends to have simplified diagrammatic maps.
People in Cincinnati tend to make extremely sharp mental distinctions between buses and railcars. The two vehicles are almost always completely intertwined parts of the same transit system, but because this distinction is so important to so many people, agencies tend to separate transit lines by type of vehicle and even put them on completely separate maps.
Here’s what maps for buses tend look like:
What do you get from looking at these images? Not many specifics of any value certainly. What overall impression do you get? I see complexity. These maps do a tremendously good job of conveying a sense of overwhelming and unclassified complexity. It’s like something from a scary movie about a dystopian techno-future, oddly devoid of the futurist UI designers so characteristic of that kind of flick.
Here’s what maps for rail tend to look like:
What are your impressions on looking at these? We quickly start to pick the maps apart, understanding and remembering how the system is laid out. It’s simplicity conveys an image of the city as ordered, if large and complex, collapsible into simple overlaid and overlapping corridors. The stops are iconic and identified, each with a name we are likely to recognize.
Rail ‘systems’ if such we can call things divorced from the rest of their body, their buses and other vehicles, lend themselves to simpler, diagrammatic maps. The rails themselves, always less prolific than bus lines cover less ground with little or no necessary surface detail, and so are easier to map. Bus systems, always more extensive(Subways can cost upwards of a billion dollars per mile these days) with few exceptions tend to run on the surface and stop more frequently. This often means that stops, even major ones can’t be highlighted for fear of leaving off minor ones, and that the details of topography tend to dominate over the simple lines of a connected network. In rail maps, the network defines and distorts topography. In bus maps, the topography defines and distorts the network.
This is a strong message to send with the primary medium with which we convey the essential structure of the transit system. Particularly in cities with both rail based and rubber-tire based transit vehicles, the first message sent by these maps is that rail and bus are essentially different and dissociated things. The second thing conveyed is the nature of this supposed distinction. We see that rail is able to convert the city into an easily discovered and sensible network of connected points and that bus makes a thorough mess of the city, indeed that it conveys nothing so effectively as it’s own complexity and encumbrance.
This is a big part of why we’re getting a streetcar. The confusion promoted by the night-and-day difference between rail and bus maps leads people to believe on an emotional level that rail transit is essentially different from and better than bus transit.
Here’s a quick local example:
Can you spot the difference now? Which one of these maps makes the streetcar seem like a primary, easy to understand and sensible service? Which one loses it among a dozen lines of equal weight and complexity? Which type of map is the city using to pitch the Streetcar? Do you think we’d have a streetcar if they had used the second map, putting the Streetcar in the context and syntax of buses?
The distinction people here make between rail based transit and rubber tire based transit is rooted, in a really fundamental way, on the types of maps that are used to convey two functionally almost identical services. There are a few other important and misleading distinctions other major cities have promulgated that lead to this misunderstanding, but more on that in another post. Also, just to be super clear, more on how rail and bus have very little in their essential natures that makes this distinction more than an academic one.