How to design a decent transit map

Don’t mind me, just adding a note about this post: It’s pretty poorly written. I don’t want to delete it, because there’s already not much content on the site, but I desperately need to work on this post. Read at your own caution or whatever.


A little over a year ago, I downloaded a little program called Inkscape on my old computer and decided to start designing transit maps with it.  The first map I made, mostly because its my local agency, was a redesign of the MBTA.  Ever since I started making maps, I’ve made a bunch of different versions of my T map as sort of a benchmark to test out my skills.  In this post, I’ll show you a timeline of some of the T maps I’ve made, and share the lessons I learned along the way.

The first map:

Apart from the, how do I put this, rough design, the goals of this map were clear: I wanted to separate out the branches of the green and red lines like the Vignelli subway map in NYC, show how close Reservoir, Cleveland Circle and Chestnut Hill Ave are to each other, and maximize space usage so that the text can be as large as possible.

The largest flaw of this map is how detached this map is from geography (And the awful color choices) – just look at how far south Wonderland is, and the huge gap between Haymarket and North Station.

This is a bad example of geographical distortion – its ok to play around with the geography of the lines a little, however, the finished product should still roughly represent the system at hand (so, having the blue line head due south in downtown is a huge no)

I banked too much off of the lines geometrically filling up most of the space, and too little about making it feel like the T.

The redesign of the redesign:

Apparently back in 2022, I was allergic to 45 degree angles… oh well, this version is definitely something.

This map, like all of my 2022 versions has some pretty awful color choices. Never be scared to use color palettes online, or look at what color combinations work and use similar colors. Clearly that thought never crossed my mind, as the handicap tick at Butler blends in with the water!

Another small quirk that this map has, which is worth addressing, is the lack of color consistency for elements on-top of the lines. In general, you want to fill blobs with the same color with your background, and also use the same color for line-identifying text.

Like the previous map, the geography on this version is so distorted that its tough to associate this with the system at hand.

Text sizing is one of the most important things to take into consideration when designing a map – you always want to shoot for 12pt font or better when designing transit diagrams – otherwise, as evident in this map, many elements are extremely tough to read.

Introducing… angles:

Finally, a design that isn’t scared to use 45 degree angles – this one isn’t the worst.

The main flaw of this map was a lack of focus on foreground elements – the subway lines and stations.  While I aimed to depict a comprehensive view of the entire transit network, I unintentionally allowed buses and commuter rail to overwhelm the map. As a result, legibility suffers, making it challenging for passengers to grasp the subway routes at a glance.

Legibility from afar is one of the hallmark features of the current map – stand 20 feet away from it, and you can still make out where each of the 4 subway lines go.

The bright colors used for buses and the thick lines used for commuter rail lines hindered the maps primary function of navigating the Boston’s 4 subway lines.

You’ll notice that the designs simplified geography isn’t carried through the map consistently – the green line features perfectly straight lines – which while disassociated from geography, make it easy to identify where stops are, while the red line is filled with angle after angle to make it somewhat resemble the real thing.  Consistency is king.

The final thing I want to point out, which is mostly just a pet peeve of mine from this map style, is to always make sure to pair line thickness & blob (the black dot that represents a dot) with the text size that you plan to use.  Had I made the lines thinner to match the thickness of the text and reduced the stroke around the blobs so they don’t occupy the entire width of each line, this map would have looked 10x better.

The faux-Vignelli:

Just look in the top right corner of the map, right around Chelsea, and you’ll see exactly where this map went wrong.

Its definitely not the worst map ever, and most of the critiques I have are just me being overly critical of myself, but like the last map, the buses detract from this maps value as primarily a subway map – it overwhelms you with information (hard to follow information at best) and as a result, legibility of the entire map suffered.

One thing I made sure to improve upon in my newest map is the route that buses have to take to reach their destination.  Specifically, the 1 (Nubian to Harvard) and the 66.  In this version, I designed the map first, then threw the bus routes in.  As a result, both the 1 and 66 have to do a sort of zig zag between stations in order to be displayed accurately – even though the routes are, for the most part, perfectly straight.

The new map:

See how the bus and commuter rail lines blend into the background on this version more than the previous ones?  If you’re going to make a map with buses, that’s absolutely the way to go.

Normally when you design a transit map, you want to start with the core of the system and work your way out, since its usually the most complicated part.  This time around, however, I started with the Southwest Corridor (southern end of the orange line) and the E branch to try and clean up the walking connections and buses that pass through that area of the map – the result was a huge improvement over the previous generation.

The buses finally, for the most part, run in straight lines, making them significantly easier to follow – and, as an improvement over the official map, they use individual lines in shared corridors so they are even easier to follow.

The silver line uses regular (12pt) size text on this version, instead relying on a thinner line to differentiate it from the rapid transit lines, which is one of my least favorite aspects of the current MBTA map.

This is a fairly long post with tons of rambling about small map details, but hopefully there’s someone out there who finds this somewhat useful.  Anyways, thanks for reading, and hopefully the next post comes out soon-enough.


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