Fixing WMATA’s Maps

Lydia DePillis wrote an extensive article for this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper about WMATA’s upcoming map crisis. A number of proposed major system changes threaten to overwhelm Harry Weese and Lance Wyman’s original map, now iconic to Washingtonians (if invariably “Fisher-Price” to New Yorkers used to their own, geographically representative but complex MTA subway map). DePillis primarily interviews both Cameron Booth, creator of a new and somewhat more accurate map that incorporates the Silver Line, and Larry Bowring, proprietor of Bowring Cartographic and producer of the StationMasters orientation guides.

What’s ironic about Bowring’s take is that for all his objections to both the Booth and Weese maps, the one he provides is even less geographically accurate, for the most part, than even the Weese map. To be fair, it shows Shady Grove as north of Glenmont, if only incrementally so, and both branches of the Red Line do run further north than west on this map (neither Booth’s nor Wyman’s maps acknowledge this). But even given this caveat, his map has far less in common with the New York MTA map than it does with the Moscow Metro map, which is more of an interrelated set of abstract linear charts converging in the center in a way that only vaguely approximates the relationship of each line to one other or to the geography of the city itself. (Similarly, both of these maps, for all their accuracy or simplicity, would make quite a hash of Maryland’s Purple Line, whatever comes of it.)

If riders really wanted a geographically accurate, New York-style map of the Metrorail system, it would look something like this, or maybe this – both approximations of ADC’s in-house Metrorail map (increasingly a relic consigned to nostalgia in the face of Google’s ubiquitous GIS). This demonstrates to some degree the extent to which the Red Line veers lopsidedly far northwest toward Gaithersburg, if not how the extreme distance of the Silver Line will eclipse that once it reaches Loudoun County.

Realistically, the new map is thought to be something like a hybridization of the original map with some Booth-like elements. The lines themselves are thinner but much will remain the same. Unfortunately, one of Wyman’s innovations in which he expresses a particular interest seems unlikely: the iconization of stations. To quote DePillis:

He says he’d like to be involved in the redesign—which would be the safest choice for Metro, given that Wyman created the aesthetic they hope to retain. But he’d try for one thing that got shot down back in 1976: Small icons for each station that reflect what’s important about the location.

“I’m really sad that didn’t go through, that kind of putting history on the table,” he says.

(Wyman was given the opportunity to create these design elements in Mexico City, something recently emulated by Seattle LINK.)

In the unlikely event the new map does expand on the original to include icons or logos representing each stop, it could reduce the pressure to absurdly overexplain every station name. Putting a proscenium arch on the Metro Center dot, or a baseball and waterline on the Navy Yard dot, is a lot easier than renaming every stop “Navy Yard-Ballpark/Capitol Riverfront” or “Metro Center-E Street/Theater District”.

Of course, this could potentially be very complicated: Capitol South would be the Capitol Dome, probably, but what would represent “Gallery Pl-Chinatown (Verizon Center)”? Some sort of Chinese character like “術” (the arts)? Is “Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan” a panda, a guitar, or a panda playing a guitar? The mind reels at the prospect of deconstructing these places, though improving both wayfinding and accuracy for Metrorail and other commuters is necessarily both a lofty and worthy goal.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on October 26, 2010.

One Response to “Fixing WMATA’s Maps”

  1. The Chinatown Arch is the natural for Gallery Place/Chinatown.

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