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.
Great work Nate! I think you’ve done a good job explaining how confusing maps and information cause urban populations to tremendously undervalue their bus transportation systems. And yes, I agree that this has serious public policy implications like Cincinnati’s redundant streetcar. For a more obscene example, see Columbus. In a shocking display of ignorance, city leaders in Columbus are installing parking meters in the Columbus-equivalent of the bus pull-ins in Cincinnati’s Government Square. They don’t seem to understand what they will be impacting. A clearer map might have helped to stop them.
I’m increasingly seeing mapping as truly essential to conveying the content and effect of a plan to citizens. Very few people are familiar with the assumptions and omissions inherent in any map and are even remotely prepared to identify let alone argue with those assumptions and omissions.
It’s as though lying, if done without words is completely acceptable. Cartographers get away with foisting their own assumptions because no one can speak their language, and more importantly, don’t know that they can’t speak their language. The best response to such situations that I can see is to make a map that contradicts the official one in style and emphasis. This would hopefully lead to either a discussion about what should be included in the map(and therefore in the broader public discussion), or at least an admission that the language of mapping is missunderstood and that neither map can be accepted without question.
BTW, are they seriously going forward with that? Is it too late to stop it?
I assume you titled your article “Why Rail is Sexy” just to get us to read the article. It worked on me, somewhat. I started reading the article but quickly got bored. You should have titled it “A Comparison of Rail vs. Bus Route Maps” or something as unassuming.
However, in response to your very fetching title, Rail IS sexy and it has nothing to do with your map analysis. Rail rocks. Literally. Rail can take you to romantic destinations while crossing over 1,000′ bridges with drop dead gorgeous scenery. You could take the Orient Express to Istanbul. You could take a rail car up snowy mountain peaks to a ski lodge and a crackling fire awaiting your arrival. You could snuggle with your travel companion while watching the Canadian Rockies in perfect Kodak moment perfection. You can sleep and dine in a rail car in relative comfort. I could go on but you get my point – Rail is sexy. Buses smell like urine.
Ha! but then who would read it?
I agree with you that many rail systems, particularly the long-distance intercity trains you talk about are sexy and luxurious in a way that bus will likely never be. I think the reason for that is that buses just don’t tend to operate the same kinds of services. They also tend to share infrastructure(roads) with cars and trucks, neither of which have the slightest bit of romance clinging to their exterior surfaces. Rail has a history of running through prairies and plains and mountains that are untouched by any vehicle but the train itself. That’s just where it’s infrastructure goes and private cars can’t clog up it’s tracks.
So yes, rail is(or tends to be) sexier. But the clothes we wear are a big part of what makes us sexy too. When we swaddle our steel tracks in designer fashions(good maps) and leave the bus draped in a tarp, we’re not letting the bus be nearly as sexy as it could be. That’s my point. Rail might be somewhat more attractive by nature, but it’s also got a huge unfair advantage adding to the disparity.
Don’t forget “the lurch”, as Cap’n Transit calls it. Rail is better for almost all people with motion sickness.
Motion sickness is not sexy. So there’s your other reason trains are sexier. :-)