Atlantic Cities

The 'Confusing and Nonsensical Grandeur' of Dublin Transport

When graphic designer Aris Venetikidis arrived in Dublin a little more than a decade ago, the first thing he did was look for a mass transit map to help him explore the city. Instead he found a transit mess. Dublin's public transportation system consisted mainly of local bus lines, layered one beside the other, each running from the outskirts into the city center. The city's maps didn't have route lines or even station names.

Venetikidis realized just how disastrous the system was when he tried to map it himself. He drew a line for every local bus route, placing them side by side as they enter the city center along similar corridors. In a recent TED talk about Dublin's transit, he called the result of this initial mapping effort "a nice plate of spaghetti." To be more precise he might have called it a plate of spaghetti with rainbow sauce:

"The actual public transport system had been a victim of wild growth, not careful planning," says Venetikidis. "In other words, the network as it is today is flawed on a very fundamental level. This does not come as a surprise to many Dubliners, but the extent of just how ridiculously flawed the system really was became very apparent with my drafts of the actual system."

Being able to visualize the "confusing and nonsensical grandeur" of Dublin transport gave Venetikidis new insight into how to improve it. He studied numerous recommendations that had been made by transit consultants (and subsequently ignored by city officials) over the years. He conducted questionnaires and case studies. He teamed up with a civil engineer named James Leahy who was looking into the problem as well. Then he went back to the drawing board.

This time, instead of mapping Dublin transit as it actually existed, Venetikidis mapped Dublin transit as it could have existed if the useful suggestions had been implemented by the city's transport authorities. He conceived a system in which a few key bus rapid-transit corridors weave through the city center and ultimately connect up with local lines in the outskirts. The result was a clean, simplified, and properly distorted transit rendering in the style of the London Tube map (full size):

Venetikidis didn't stop there. After creating his hypothetical BRT map, he then tackled what he's called the ultimate goal: a complete transport map of central Dublin. This work incorporated the potential rapid-bus system as well as the existing light rail and tram lines that run through the city. He signified every route with a line, displayed every station with its name, added important landmarks — pretty much the map he'd been looking for when he first arrived in the city (full size):

Dublin's transport authority loved the work so much, says Venetikidis, that it asked him how to make maps just like it. His response was that before the city could create good transport maps, it first had to clean up its transport network.

"The network needs to be re-visited an a very basic level," he says. "It should be designed not just by engineers or executives, but by people who understand how human perception works — i.e. from the customer's point of view."

Venetikidis isn't quite sure why Dublin has been so reluctant to accept many of the changes suggested by himself and others. Politics and a lack of leadership likely play a role. A greater problem might be the city's transit history: the local bus system is so engrained in the culture that people fear losing a "direct" connection to the city center — even though the BRT network that could replace the local buses would get them there more quickly.

"Most people in Dublin's transport planning know very well that the system is in dire need of simplification," he says. "But when it comes to what exactly these simplifications would be, or developing some sort of grand master plan, the discussions sink into storms of opinions and ineffective arguments."

Looking ahead, Venetikidis plans to study transit systems and propose simplification concepts for other cities. He's not entirely finished with Dublin, but between generating the maps, presenting them to officials, supplying documentation for his ideas, and showcasing his ideas at TED, he doesn't see what else he can do on his own. The next move is in the city's hands.

"The ball is out of my court," he says. "I wonder if the phone will ever ring and there will be a person on the other end offering me to be a consultant or designer for a simplified system — but I am not holding my breath."

All images courtesy of Aris Venetikidis.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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