If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good Metro/Subway/Underground map. Some of them are design classics and really shouldn’t be messed with (London especially). Others have flaws, but are mostly tolerable (Boston not naming all stations on the Green Line really annoys me, but the rest of the diagram is quite well done).
And then there are the diagrams that I simply can’t abide.
And, at the moment, foremost amongst those is that of the Washington, DC Metro system. I know that it’s one of the most comprehensive mass-transit systems in the US. And I know that some love its broad, brightly-coloured route lines and overly-large station dots, both of which do lend sort of a child-like simplicity to the system, but I’m not one of them. My main problem is that it looks like it’s been done by an amateur – white keylines around the route lines are of different thicknesses in different parts of the map and station dots simply aren’t centred on their lines. Also baffling is the choice of an extremely ugly symbol to indicate parking at stations. There’s an international symbol for parking, and a blue circle with a white “P” inside it looks a lot more elegant than something akin to a boxy mid-1980s Volvo.
Delving further, it became obvious to me that there are also some serious inaccuracies on the current DC Metro diagram: whether these are because of space restrictions or error, I don’t know. Friendship Heights on the Red Line should straddle the border of the District, not sit well outside it, as should Southern Avenue on the Green Line. The next station out on the Green Line, Naylor Road, also sits very close to the border in reality – something not indicated at all on the current map, which just heads on out in a straight line. And why are the District/County border lines exactly the same shade of grey as the Capital Beltway road?
Another huge problem for legibility is the number of different angles that type is set at. We have station names set horizontally, at 45° degrees reading up from the left AND at 45° down from the left. And where type can’t quite fit at those angles (I’m looking at you, Froggy Bottom-GWU and Farragut West), the designer cheats and changes the angle.
I’m also not a fan of the huge call-out boxes that explain the peak hour restrictions on the Yellow and Red Lines. The one on the Yellow Line makes you work really hard to find Mt Vernon Square/7th St-Convention Center station before you can even visualise the gap in services on the map.
Most staggering of all, on the current map, the borders of the District/Arlington County don’t describe the perfect diamond shape that they should – they’ve been distorted to fit lines and stations in. On a diagram that is reduced to perfect 45° angles elsewhere, this is unforgivable.
Finally, there are big changes afoot with the Metro system. Work is already underway on the Silver Line, which will run parallel with the Orange Line from Stadium-Armory to East Falls Church before splitting and heading past Dulles Airport deep into Loudon County. If the current style of map adds another route at the thickness that lines are currently shown at, very little of the underlying “map” will still be visible. I also doubt that the current “double dot” indicator for a Transit Center will be visually viable when three lines cross one at Metro Center, or three cross two at L’Enfant Plaza.
So, this is my solution.
Fitting on the same US Letter sheet (albeit rotated 90°) as the current PDF available on the Washington Metro website, with the distinctive diamond around the District/Arlington County at exactly the same size, as well as type. All information that is shown on the current map is present on my version (plus a little more, as you’ll see below).
My first amendment was a thinning of route lines to allow the addition of the Silver Line without obscuring more of the “map” underneath the routes. Where possible, lines exit the District at the correct relative position along the border, and stations that straddle or are located very close the the border maintain that position. An added benefit of the thinner route lines is that I was actually able to show the commuter/heavy rail lines and stations in a manner that is informational, but subordinate to the main Metro lines.
Note that the Red Line runs underneath the Silver/Orange/Blue line heading south after Farragut North – this is done to denote the lines have no interaction or interchange at this point: something the current map doesn’t do a very good job of.
Line colors are now denoted by a simple single letter at the end of each line, rather than the clumsy and obtrusive “GREEN LINE”, “BLUE LINE”, etc laid alongside each line on the current map. It is absolutely necessary to denote lines in another manner than just colour alone – red/green color-blind people perceive very line apart from Blue and Yellow as very similar shades of muddy brown. Also, the peak hour restrictions on the Red and Yellow Lines are now clearly indicated by darker lines running down the middle of the route line between relevant stations, and are fully explained in the Legend on the right hand side of the diagram.
All station names are now set horizontally. Every single one of them! And very few of them overlap lines or other important elements, even with the station name overload that seems to affect so many US transit systems. I mean, “U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” – really?!
The Capital Beltway and borders are now different shades of grey and much different thicknesses, and the District itself has a subtle coloured background to set it apart from the surrounding counties. Colours for the rivers and parkland are more muted than on the current map, which allows the routes themselves to stand out more.
Is my approach perfect? No. My map probably exchanges some of the individual charm of the original in search of clarity and accuracy, but it definitely shows a different approach to the problem… which, to me, is a fascinating thing.
Link to the map on Flickr, where you can view a large (3000 pixels wide) version if you log in as a Flickr member.
See also my diagram of the US Interstate System in the style of the London Underground (Flickr).