A chat with the cartographer who dreamed up this latest entry into the aspirational transit future genre.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth the difference between getting lost for two hours and getting to your destination in 20 minutes, anxiety-free.

Brian Stokle knows a thing or two about maps: he's been creating them since he was six years-old. “Back then,” the transportation planner and cartographer recalls, “It was imaginary city maps, or adapting existing cities by adding a subway network, or imagining what a region would look like with rising sea levels.” Though he did briefly work at the Rand McNally bookstore, it was during his graduate studies in urban planning at Columbia University that he began to make serious maps, inspired, he says, “by using Paris Metro maps when I lived in France, following my natural curiosity about the world, and holding the belief that stories and information are sometimes best told through a map. Working alongside Steve Boland and Jay Primus, both of whose work I admire, has pushed me to make better maps. Other inspirations are Eddie Jabbour's Kick Map of the New York City Subway system, London's tube mapParis' metro map, and incorporating elements of other good maps I've run across.”

While working for transportation planners Nelson\Nygaard, Stokle made "many maps" (BART station maps, transit village designs, parking study maps, etc.) but sometimes he makes them just to satisfy his own curiosity. Take this map of San Francisco’s unique topography:

San Francisco Topography Map by Brian Stokle.

“I had never seen a real topographic map of San Francisco that wasn't cluttered with streets, freeways or buildings,” Stokle explains. “I created this map to see what it really looks like.”

Recently, the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR asked Stokle to draw two transit maps for them (full disclosure—I edit SPUR’s monthly magazine, The Urbanist), with the intent of 1) demonstrating how a single, unified transit map might provide greater accessibility and ease of use; and 2) to stimulate conversation about how transit decisions are made. Could, for example, a route where BART expansion might be planned serve its citizens better if bus rapid transit was implemented instead? Should agencies create passes that allow for the use of multiple systems (with free transfers) to avoid the hassles that occur not only getting from one city to another, but often even within a single city served by several systems?

One Mapmaker's Vision for a Single Integrated Bay Area Transit Map. 

Before embarking on two maps of Bay Area transit, one showing the current scenario (above), and a future (or "fantasy") scenario, Stokle began with a few core principles:

1.)  Focus on the customer's needs, especially those who are new to transit (new commuters, tourists, visitors, etc.) and for locals unfamiliar with how to get to a certain part of the Bay Area.

2.)  Show only frequent, fast, and reliable transit, principally rail transit. Rapid bus routes were also included because they are fast and frequent as well. Some other transit was shown for reference (e.g. peak period commuter rail, trunk bus lines where no rapid transit exists) but showing every bus line would have been too confusing and unhelpful.

3.)  Ensure that the map shows different transit types to help people know how fast the transit is, and how often it stops. In general metro subways, and commuter rail are very fast, but stop infrequently, which means you can get somewhere faster, but your destination may not be close to the station. Light rail and rapid buses travel somewhat slower, but have more frequent stops. Although showing metro rail with a wider line may not seem that important, showing the difference allows people to approximate (even if unconsciously) the frequency of service and the time it will take them to make the journey.

4.)  The "current" transit map was meant to only show existing transit plus transit projects that are already under construction, meaning you will be able to use them someday soon.

5.)  The "future" transit map was meant to show most planned transit projects and services (whether funded or not); not show those projects that should be reconsidered due to high cost or projected low ridership; and additional transit project ideas that have never been considered or have had little consideration, but would all provide great service that meets the transportation needs of a particular area or corridor.

With this in mind, Stokle worked on the "Current” map first by sketching a few basic route maps in pencil to get a sense of the different geometries that would work to show the entire Bay Area. He built off of the "Reality" map for the "Future" map, though some adjustments were required.

A Possible Future: What a Comprehensive Regional Transit System Might Look Like.

The majority of the projects, routes, and modes shown in Stokle’s proposed “Future” map (or some might argue, “Utopian”) reflect current Bay Area planning. However in some cases, the mode or route has been changed. In other instances, some new routes have been suggested. For example, BART to Livermore and Dumbarton Rail are two projects that are not included in this map. Instead, access to Livermore from BART is provided by bus rapid transit, and the Dumbarton corridor is served by rapid bus service. New projects that are not currently part of planning, or are in their early phases include projects like the Oakland Emeryville streetcar down Broadway, Capitol Corridor crossing at Vallejo, and 101 Rapid in the Peninsula.

These maps are not meant to be 100 percent geographically accurate because, as Stokle explains, “There is a natural friction between trying to make the network legible, but also maintaining some resemblance to real geography. If the network is too schematic that the geography is lost, many people won't recognize where they are on the map. In contrast, if the map is overly geographic, areas with denser transit and closer stations will be too crowded on the map; so much so that reading that part of the map would prove quite challenging. In either case, the extremes don't produce a legible map that helps you get from A to B. Finding the 'Goldilocks' point, not too schematic, not too geographic, but highly legible is how a final map should look, for a transit map at this complexity and scale.”

Not surprisingly, the two maps have generated a lot of conversation (and some controversy)—which is exactly what they were meant to do. (And for more ideas on improving Bay Area transit, check out the article by SPUR's Egon Terplan: "Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit," one of which is "Produce a single transit map for the Bay Area and move toward common branding.")

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a map of future climate risks in the U.S.

    America After Climate Change, Mapped

    With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.

  2. Life

    The Death and Life of the 13-Month Calendar

    Favored by leaders in transportation and logistics, the International Fixed Calendar was a favorite of Kodak founder George Eastman, whose company used it until 1989.

  3. photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009

    Help! The London Tube Map Is Out of Control.

    It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

  4. photo: A vacant home in Oakland that is about to demolished for an apartment complex.

    Fix California’s Housing Crisis, Activists Say. But Which One?

    As a controversy over vacancy in the Bay Area and Los Angeles reveals, advocates disagree about what kind of housing should be built, and where.

  5. photo: A daycare provider reads to students in New York City.

    How Universal Pre-K Drives Up Families’ Infant-Care Costs

    An unintended consequence of free school programs for three- and four-year-olds is a reduction in the supply of affordable child care for kids younger than two.