Atlantic Cities
Maps

Boston Wants You to Design a Better Transit Map

You don't have to be a professional designer to point out some of the flaws in Boston's transit map. The five-legged Green line is too cramped to fit all the station names. The Silver line looks like a subway line even though it's a bus rapid transit system. The key local bus lines are great to have, but one suspects they aren't terribly useful to anyone who doesn't already use them.

And the MBTA agrees the map can be improved, because this week it announced a public competition to do just that. From now through the end of April, Boston's transit authority is accepting design submissions on individual aspects of the map as well as complete renderings. Winners will be selected for their creativity, aesthetic presentation, and informative quality, and announced in mid-May as part of National Transportation Week.

Whether the MBTA knows it or not, the authority doesn't have to look far for a good replacement candidate. Cameron Booth, whose previous work has included a fantastic transit-style map of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, created a new Boston transit map back in 2012 (via Universal Hub). He's called the current map "well meaning, but seriously flawed" in more charitable moments, and a "horrible mess" in less diplomatic ones.

Long before the current competition was announced, Booth made several redesigned MBTA maps, some including key bus lines as well as future system expansions. We'll focus on his main map, which includes only subway lines and the BRT:

The first thing that's evident in Booth's redesign is that all the Green line stations are named. (Booth acknowledges these additions can only be achieved by making the map a rectangle instead of a square, which it is at present.) The same goes for all the stations on the Silver line. The five Silver BRT lines are now slimmer, to distinguish them from subway routes, are don't blend together as much as before.

In Booth's map, station names are either flat or placed at an upward 45-degree angle; any other variations, including the looping "Silver line" description, are gone. Weekday-only Blue line segments receive a dotted treatment that's impossible to miss. The colors in general are deeper and the red is now crimson, since it goes through Harvard after all. Stations within walking distance of one another — something that's very rarely apparent on transit maps — are connected with a thin black line.

These improvements give the MBTA map a crisper, cleaner appearance, but Booth won't be submitted his work for the current contest anytime soon. That's not because he isn't up to the challenge (he would need to render the map as a "perfect square" to meet competition guidelines), but because he sees the contest as an unfair means to gather good ideas without compensation. Indeed, submissions become the "sole property" of MBTA, and the transit authority owns the "entire copyright," according to the contest rules.

Writing at his blog earlier this week, Booth called those stipulations "insulting" to designers:

Eventually, I was going to get around to making a square version, but not now. Not now that I know the MBTA is looking for free ideas for their map. If the MBTA likes my ideas for their map — and they’ve surely seen enough of my body of work to know that it’s good — then they can bloody well pay me for it.

The merits and demerits of freelance speculative work can be debated elsewhere. (And perhaps the MBTA would be willing to arrange some compensation for entrants whose work is deemed so excellent that it's incorporated into official maps in the future.) That discussion aside, two things seem certain, as far as Boston's transit map is concerned. First, transit officials recognize it's time for an improvement, and second, there are talented people out there capable of producing one.

Map via Flickr with permission from Cameron Booth.

Keywords: Boston, MBTA, Transit Maps

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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