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Maps

How San Francisco Got Its New Rider-Friendly Transit Map

The design uses weighted lines to show which buses come more often than others.

(Ian Fuller / Flickr)

Jay Primus still remembers the first time the Muni map got the best of him. It was 1999, and he’d just moved to San Francisco. He was deciding between the 2-Clement and the parallel 38-Geary bus lines. Both looked more or less the same on the Muni map so he went with the 2. Big mistake: that was a much less frequent line, and Primus recalls a wait that felt like approximately “forever.”

The lesson stayed with him over the years: a transit map should not only show where trains or buses go but how often they come, and it should convey that information quickly even to novice riders. “I wanted a map that, at a glance, you can get a sense of what service will be most useful,” he says. “You shouldn’t need a secret decoder ring to figure it out.”

Fast forward to today and Primus has turned the insight from that rough early journey into one of the most rider-friendly transit maps you’ll ever see. The redesigned Muni map—co-created by Primus and David Wiggins—immediately indicates frequency through a route line’s thickness. Muni officials adopted it system-wide this April and will update it later this month to reflect a service upgrade.

“I think it’s one of the most important dimensions in decisions about how people travel—how long they’re going to have to wait for the bus,” says Julie Kirschbaum, head of service planning and scheduling at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni’s official name). “The old map was not communicating that.”

(SFMTA)

Designing for the wrong riders

The previous Muni map was fine for its time. That would be the early 1980s. In the three-plus decades since the older map’s debut, designers made note of many problems. Take the various line colors, says Wiggins, who’s now a senior cartographer at Expedia, in Seattle. They represented which bus barn stored a route’s fleet at the end of the day. That’s helpful information to the agency, but it’s totally useless—and potentially confusing—to regular riders.

“We specifically took the customer we’re designing for as someone who’s maybe ridden the bus once or twice but is going somewhere they haven’t been before,” he says. “I think often transit agencies want to get all the information on there. It ends up being useful for the pro user that always goes to the same place. It’s like they’re designing it for the wrong person.”

The redesign effort began in 2004, when Primus and Wiggins both worked at the transportation consultancy Nelson/Nygaard. One day, after Wiggins gave a brownbag talk on great transit maps, they teamed up to take on the Muni map (“Kinda for the hell of it,” says Primus). They hunted down hundreds of maps in archives and libraries for inspiration and developed a sample design. A few months later they pitched Muni—Primus had worked there previously and still knew people there—but after the agency expressed some initial interest the talks fell apart.

The color scheme used in the previous Muni map, introduced in the early 1980s, was more useful to the agency than to riders. (SFMTA)

But by 2012, Primus was managing the city’s SFpark program, and when he mentioned the map to a friend at Muni, the timing was finally right. The agency was preparing a massive service upgrade called Muni Forward, with a particular emphasis on frequency and a rebranding of the very best service from Limited (which feels negative) to Rapid (which suggests speed). A new map was just the way to help the public visualize these improvements.

“It’s very crisp,” says Muni’s Kirschbaum. “You can look at a glance and see what service is going to be the premium service. We want to make transit the easy choice.”

Napoleon’s invasion of Muni

The remade Muni map’s key visual feature is that each bus line is weighted by service frequency. That idea came partly from former Nelson/Nygaard colleague Jarrett Walker, who’s long stressed the importance of frequency, and partly from an old map Primus had spotted: Charles Minard’s depiction of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia of 1812. As Napoleon’s forces march into Russia then retreat, all the while diminishing in size, the map lines get thinner and thinner.

Charles Minard's 1869 map of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia uses the weight of the line (tan is the advance, black the retreat) to indicate the size of the French forces. (Wiki Commons)

The redesigned Muni map operates much the same way. Thin blue lines run every 20 to 30 minutes; medium ones run every 10 to 20; thick dark ones run every 10 minutes or less. Muni Metro (light rail) and Muni Rapid (premium bus) services are shown in thick red lines to distinguish them from basic bus routes while also indicating their high frequency. Yellow lines identify San Francisco’s historic streetcar and cable cars.

At its best, the map removes a lot of rider guesswork. Take the No. 2 and the No. 38 buses (below) that flummoxed Primus so many years back. Now the difference in service quality is instantly clear: the 38 is thicker and darker blue, and has a Rapid red partner line—it’s Napoleon’s attack to the 2’s retreat.

A handful of other transit systems have delved into weighted frequency maps—D.C.’s Metrobus and Spokane Transit being two strong examples—but for the most part cities have shied away from the approach. The reason may be partly political. Since frequency maps spotlight which parts of town have worse service, they invite criticism that basic maps of service coverage don’t.

“A bus map you often see is the same thickness and same color line for the whole network: It makes [agencies] look like they’ve got the whole place covered,” says Wiggins. “That’s to the benefit of them and not to the rider.”

The difference between the 38-Geary and the 2-Clement lines (spotted at the center of this close-up) is clear at a glance in the new Muni map (SFMTA)

Wiggins thinks transit maps designed around coverage ultimately harm the system as a whole. Instead of using the map to find a bus route that works for a particular trip, riders stick to one specific line whose schedule they know—avoiding the map altogether. The result is a ridership that ends up taking a car more than it otherwise might, and one that objects loudly when the agency proposes a system change that would force them to learn a new route.

“I think with a better map, it actually might facilitate people being able to let go a little bit,” he says. “It stops becoming ‘this is my route and this is what I cling to’ and more of a network you can relate to.”

What other cities can learn

The frequency lines aren’t the only design upgrade in the new Muni map. Primus and Wiggins recently outlined a number of other improvements in a talk at the Bay Area planning advocacy SPUR. Some of the highlights:

It’s also a pedestrian map. “Anyone on transit is by definition a pedestrian,” says Primus. With that in mind, he and Wiggins made the map useful from a walker’s perspective, even as it functions primarily as a transit guide. So they kept an accurate scale (unlike other transit maps that famously distort geography) and showed all streets (labeling 95 percent, in a faint grey).

They cleared the clutter. In communicating so much information, the old map got a bit messy. The new map is more selective. One example: Dolores Park is now just “Dolores”—the green space and green font convey park without “Park.” Similarly, labels like Avenue, Street, or Boulevard were removed (except in cases where there’s two of something, like 16th St. and 16th Ave.). “Any place we could take ink away, we would,” says Primus.

Extraneous words, like “Park,” have been removed to de-clutter the new map (left). (Courtesy SFMTA / Jay Primus / David Wiggins)

But added some key info. In a few cases, Primus and Wiggins decided the old map didn’t quite say enough. They dotted the select stop locations for the Muni Metro and Rapid services, for instance. They also generally separated lines heading in the same direction instead of blending them together to prevent what Wiggins calls “shield hunting”—the frustration of following a certain route across a crowded map, only to have it disappear for long stretches.

The new Muni map (left) indicates Metro and Rapid stops (white dots) and generally keeps lines heading in the same direction separate. (Courtesy SFMTA / Jay Primus / David Wiggins)

It’s highly legible and easier to scan. Some examples: they use mixed-case lettering instead of all-caps, aligned street names left, snapped all route shields perpendicular to the grid, and gave the turns a gentler curve. Primus says the visual goal was to help someone who’s 50 years old without great eyesight quickly read the map through scratched Plexiglas late at night. “If we’re serving that person, then everyone can see it,” he says.

Street names are left-aligned in the new map (left) to improve legibility. (Courtesy SFMTA / Jay Primus / David Wiggins)

Primus and Wiggins gifted the map to Muni for use within San Francisco but retain intellectual property rights for the design features, should any other city wish to adopt it. Primus says they’ve already pitched it to regional agencies, pushing the idea that Bay Area transit riders should have a consistent visual language. And in a larger sense, he hopes the new map calls attention to the role design can play in helping transit agencies put riders first.

“Transit agencies have a universal goal to increase ridership, and make transit more viable for more and more trips, and hopefully save the world,” he says. “It doesn’t seem that design is often viewed as a way to achieve those goals. Most of us would say it’s a critical way.”

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