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Project: Boston MBTA Map Redesign

Boston MBTA Map: Current, with Key Bus Routes

Back in January, I posted a review of the current Boston MBTA transit map on my Transit Maps blog – and I had some harsh words for it (I believe the phrase “hot mess” occurs in the text). Always one to back my words up with actions, I’ve been quietly working on my own revised version that I feel improves the map in quite a few areas. I’ve also created a few different versions to illustrate some points about the design, so hang in there: this could be a long post!

Boston Rapid Transit (No Buses): from $27 Boston Rapid Transit (with Buses): from $27

The image at the top of the post (click here or on the image to see a larger preview) shows the same information as the current official MBTA map, with the addition of all stations on the Green Line branches, not just the accessible ones, and all stations on the Silver Line BRT. This does mean that my map is not the same square format as the current map, and I fully admit that to achieve that square format, you must to omit stations on the Green Line. However, I wanted to see what the map looked like with all stations named – so my maps are unapologetically in a wider format.

Other changes from the official map: a tweaking of all the subway line colours to slightly deeper, richer hues that seem to suit Boston better than plain old red, blue, green and orange. I felt it was especially important for the Red Line, which is red because it goes to Harvard, which has crimson as its colour.

Depiction of the Silver Line routes as thinner, separate routes that make their routing easier to follow, especially for the SL4 and SL5 lines around Chinatown and Boylston. Despite attempts to convince people otherwise, the Silver Line is not part of the subway system, it’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and needs to be visually differentiated from the actual subway lines.

The underlying geography is now show in a stylised, rectlinear form that matches the depiction of the routes themselves. One of my pet peeves is angular transit maps that insist on putting these routes on “real” geography. The geography always ends up totally distorted to fit the routes anyway, and I find the clash of styles very jarring.

A firm hierarchy of routes: The subway routes and the Silver Line (the most important information on the map) sit at the top, then commuter rail, then bus routes, then (least importantly), ferry routes at the bottom. If lines do not interact with each other when they cross, they are separated by a thin white keyline. The routes lines also become correspondingly thinner the lower down the information hierarchy they fall.

A complete reworking of the Green Line branches to better match their real-life layout (although in a perfect world, the “C” branch would be straight along its entire length). This also allowed me to introduce a thin dotted black line between Chestnut Hill Ave, Cleveland Circle and Reservoir stations to indicate that they are within walking distance of each other (in effect, an out-of-system transfer), which I’ve also used between Boylston and Chinatown stations.

A visual indication that the Blue Line between Government Center and Bowdoin is only open for the working week, rather than the easy to miss asterisk on the current map.

Station labels are limited to horizontal and angled 45 degrees up to the right. I normally strive to get all station names horizontal, but the Green Line branches make that impossible in this situation. It’s still an improvement on the current map, which uses more variants of angled text.

Station markers have been made as linear as possible, which I think is a great improvement over the knobbly, multi-armed markers used currently.

I’ve also fixed a few errors that I found on the official map, mainly to do with bus routes (especially the 66, and the 15, 22 and 23 which should all go through Roxbury Crossing on their way to Ruggles).

Boston MBTA Map: Present, No Bus Routes

This variation (larger preview here) shows all current routes like the first map, but omits the key bus routes. Of note is how much cleaner the map looks instantly – almost nothing else has changed at all. The other main improvement in this variant is that the labelling of the stations on the S4 and S5 lines near Dudley Square gets a lot neater because we don’t have to deal with the #1 bus route!

One thing you may have noticed with the two maps above is the new way I’ve treated the Lowell commuter rail line: running at a 45-degree angle instead of straight up like on the current map. Why have I done this? Because the map has had the future built into it – as all well-designed transit maps should. The currently-planned Green Line Extension will run along much of the same right-of-way as the Lowell Line, so I’ve moved it to a position where this can be achieved easily.

Boston MBTA Map: Future, with Bus Routes

Here’s a map with the future routes added (larger preview). Nothing has had to be moved; everything just slots into place perfectly.

Boston MBTA Map: Future, No Bus Routes

Even better is this future map without the key bus routes (larger preview), which allows the new stations (Newmarket, Four Corners/Geneva, Talbot Ave and Blue Hills Ave) on the Fairmount commuter rail line to be respaced a little more evenly and aesthetically.

As always, comments and thoughts are welcome!


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  8. David

    One note about the ‘future’ map – Ball Square is relatively close to Davis Square. Not quite to the degree of “easy walking distance” that would warrant a marking, but the green extension and red line get a lot closer to each other than is implied in the map.

  9. Jeremy

    Excellent map, but you should put an easy walking distance in between Mass Ave. Orange Line stop and Symphony Green Line stop: it’s about a 1-2 minute walk, the same distance in between the terminus of the C Green Line and respective D and B line stops.

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  11. Jameson

    I just found this blog, and am loving it and going through the archives. My question on this one is why don’t you include in the future maps the planned extension of the blue to Charles MGH and closing Bowdoin? As someone who lives on the Blue but goes to Cambridge a few times a week, it will be very nice if/when we get a direct connection.

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  13. Cameron,
    I am working on an idea for a sculpture in the landscape using your future Boston map as a launching point. I could use the current MBTA map, but I thought moving your idea forward would go with the theme of the competition…”moving landscapes.”
    With your permission, I will use your future map as a reference, crediting you, of course. There is no money involved except the money I use to build it! It’s an exhibition in Cape Cod, MA.
    What do you think?
    If you check my website and click Blog you’ll see the work I’m doing with metal tubing.

  14. Nathanael

    I will say this: when visiting Boston I’ve found the “key bus routes” to be absolutely useless on the T map, due to their sheer unreliability (I have a story about people waiting for the #1, while I took the Green Line to the Red Line to a bus bridge to the Red Line and arrived an hour before them). They should simply not be be on the map if they aren’t reliable enough to use.

    The Silver Line routes may, possibly, be reliable enough to use. So I guess it can stay.

    I have a further proposal. Right now, *most* stations are wheelchair accessible (apart from on the branches of the Green Line). The notation of accessible stations should be reversed to note *inaccessible* stations with some sort of “no-wheelchair” icon. This would reduce clutter.

    The icon could also be inside the station dot, not off next to the label.

  15. This is wonderful! Have you gotten in contact with the T about this? Maybe they could use some of these suggestions (or all of them minus the format) in the official map, which sucks compared to this!

    Also, “easily walkable” is a subjective term, but Riverside to Auburndale is a reasonably short walk, although signage is of course non-existent so you’ve got to have directions.

  16. Ken Conaway

    I really like your redesigns. I have a small suggestion. For the Silver Line routes, they should be SL1, SL2, SL4, SL5 to correspond to the actual route numbers. Other than that, it’s a really nice map.

  17. Andrew

    This map is truly impressive. So, you’ve done DC (which was in dire need of an update), you’ve done Boston (which was just a mess)… what big challenge will you take on next? Chicago? New York? Or, god help you, Tokyo?

    • Andrew – I have my eyes on Denver’s RTD Metro map at the moment. Not only is it pretty poor, but with all the FasTracks expansion work, it’s going to need a whole new map soon anyway!

  18. Nice maps!

    A nitpick about the “future” map: it’s Blue Hill (not Hills) Avenue, and the #28 key bus route runs along it so should be shown with a connection to the Fairmount line at that stop.

  19. Jeffrey Bridgman

    Love it! Very well done.
    Just one question though: What’s going on with bus #15 between Kane Square and Fields Corner? I’m assuming something similar to the blue line betwen Bowdoin and Government Center?

    • The dotted line is meant to represent night time and early morning service, but I left it off the legend. As is usual with these maps, there’s always a first round of corrections after I first put them up…

  20. I like this map, but a couple of comments.

    The B/C/D split as you show it would be confusing for tourists, the primary users of maps. It’s not as intuitive that Kenmore is the split in service. Yes, the actual tracks on the C and D split much later, but riders only care about where they have to get off.

    The 77 north of Arlington center, in the MBTA map, and your map, could be made more geographically accurate, as there is plenty of space to do so.

    Also, K Dumas’s post made me realize the real reason the MBTA isnt building the blue line to Lynn….theyre worried it wont fit on a perfect square template.

  21. This is excellent work! It’s jarring at first when you’re used to the shape of the Green Line on the existing map, but all your redesigns make sense and look great.

    An additional challenge, if you ever feel like applying your genius to it, might be to find a way to show the northern ends of each of the four Green Line branches (B & D Gov’t Center, C North Station, E Lechmere). In the past couple of years a diagram showing this explicitly has appeared at some stations (wish I could find a picture), but for the most part you have to know already, look it up elsewhere, or just start noticing after a while that, say, only Government Center trains ever show up on Comm Ave. Maybe on a map it would be as simple as labels, e.g. “B terminus” or what have you, or maybe there’s a more clever way!

    • Andy, I’ve attempted to address the Green Line branches somewhat by including that information in the legend, but you’re right: it would be much better to label both ends (I only have labels on the outer termini at the moment). The main problem is Government Center, where space is already at a premium (and I hate abbreviating names – Govt. Ctr. just looks silly!).

  22. K Dumas

    As the creator of the current MBTA map all I can say is that some or your ideas are interesting, but since the MBTA Map has to fit into a perfect square I will not comment further since it would not be a fair comparison. If you can your design to fit into a square, then I will comment.

    K Dumas

    • You’re hard to please, K Dumas. 🙂

      I am working on a square map, and I’ve already admitted that Green Line branch stations do have to be omitted to make it work. Let’s just say that these are my “dream” maps, where the physical restrictions of MBTA requirements don’t exist – and really, they don’t have to exist except on station signboards, which are – and always will be – square. Printed copies or PDFs on the internet can be US Letter or tabloid without any problem.

      • Brett

        Just letterbox it into a square frame. Sure it’d be smaller, but it’d still be legible.

  23. Nathan Williams

    I like it. Good catch in particular making the 77 bus route cross over the red line between Davis and Alewife, rather than between Porter and Davis.

    What do you think about frequency mapping? The fact that all the individual Green Line branches are the same width as the central subway, and that the Government Center-North Station-Lechmere end is the same width as the central subway, are both somewhat misleading; the Red Line branches ditto.

  24. Liryon

    I very much like the visual appeal the out of system transfer between Boylston and Chinatown actual makes a square box in the middle of the system, which is remniscent of the older offical mbta maps which depicted the center of the system as a square.

    The meaning of the dotted bus 15 route between Kene Square and Fields Corner is missing from the key in both bus map versions. It also doesn’t appear on the offical mbta map. I expected it to mean planned future survice but then in the future map I’d expect it to be solid. So maybe it means limitted time service, in which case they Bowdin dotted-ness could be made less specific to cover both instances.

    • You’re right, that is missing from the key. In this case, the dotted line indicates night time and early morning routing of the 15 to Fields Corner. I thought I was being super clever, too 🙂

  25. Dom

    I really like your redesign and I think it fixes a lot of my current annoyances with the official T map, particularly since they added the key bus routes 2 years ago. The treatment of the silver line is much improved and hopefully could remove some of the confusion that visitors experience at the airport when they are looking for a train. As a Cambridge resident and (future) transportation/city planner, there are a few little things that seem like they could be easily fixed.
    -The Silver Line buses actually display SL1/SL2/etc. on their head signs, so the map should probably match these labels.
    -Courthouse and World Trade Center are actually underground stations, so it seems like they could be treated differently than surface stations so that people know what to look for.
    -Back Bay, South Station, and North Station don’t denote their Amtrak service. Not sure this is necessary, but seems like it could be helpful (but potentially cluttered).
    -I can see why you placed Aberdeen Ave where you did and I know it’s just a diagram where geographic accuracy is secondary, but it looks as if it’s right below Belmont Center when in reality it’s almost directly south of Alewife. The tradeoff, of course, is that the 71 and 73 split soon after, so route geography gets sacrificed for station geography.
    I also hate to say it, but because the map isn’t square, it basically makes it unusable for the MBTA in print. Every space they have for the map is square – inside the trains and buses, the boards in stations – so a rectangular map would require them either to shrink it to fit (which would make it unusable), or rebuild every map display space (expensive, if it’s even feasible). The solution might not be to shrink the east/west-dimension of the map, but to expand to the north and south until it’s square.
    Overall, great work though. I’d love to see this implemented in Boston (and in all likelihood I’ll be working at the T this summer and possibly in the future, so I’ll totally advocate for it, though I can imagine the T has little money to dedicate to a new map).

    • Thanks for your comments, Dom! A few notes in reply:
      – The Silver Line routes are labelled according to their route numbers in black boxes.

      EDIT: Oh, I get you now: it should be “SL1”, not “S1”. Good point!

      – Fully aware that the MBTA uses a square for all their maps. This is my “dream” map where those restrictions don’t apply, but I am working on a square map. Green Line branch stations will have to be sacrificed again for that to work.

  26. This is absolutely wonderful! I would only add that it would be great to have the “easily walkable” marker between Northeastern and Ruggles, but I understand that aesthetically that’s difficult

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