Redesigning the MBTA Map… Again…

The MBTA map is a familiar sight for anyone who travels around Boston by public transit. But is it the best it can be? I don’t think so. That’s why I have been redesigning the map every year for the past few years, trying to improve its accuracy, clarity, and usefulness. And I’m not the only one. Many other map enthusiasts have also created their own versions of the map, each with their own vision and style.

This post presents my latest design, which I think is the best one yet. It also demonstrates why I made the changes that I did, and how they compare with the official map and other alternatives. Without further ado, let’s dive into it.

The Design Process

The most complicated area to design by far on these maps is the Huntington Ave – Southwest corridor area. To effectively cram in 3 walking connections, the 39 bus, the commuter rail, and the numerous Key Bus Routes that cross through this area, I had to be very particular about how I set up the two lines.

One of the most challenging and interesting aspects of redesigning the T map is how to represent the connection between Copley and Back Bay. Though the stations are shown as halfway across the city on the official subway map, they are both a 5 minute walk from each other down Dartmouth St. In terms of walking connections, this is the most critical one on the entire network. The Copley – Back Bay connection not only comes in handy during orange and green line shutdowns, but allows riders on 4 commuter rail lines and Amtrak to have a 2-seat ride to green line stations.

There’s effectively 2 ways of designing this connection: you can either have the E branch remain perfectly straight from Brigham Circle to Government Center, eliminating the Boylston curve, or add an extra two curves to the orange line, which lets you stack Back Bay and Copley on top of eachother. The latter is the design I chose on last years redesign, while the former is the design I went with for this version (the fun, and annoying thing when designing maps is that a tweak you make halfway down the map impacts things on different sides of the map. For this reason, one of the main factors for why I stacked Copley and Back Bay was so I could fit a clearer Tufts Medical Center & Chinatown Gate label.)

Last year’s map redesign
This year’s redesign

The other tricky area is the Roxbury Crossing – Brigham Circle – Brookline Village area. This time around, however, I was able to display the area significantly more accurately.

If you were to look at the current T map, or even the map I released last year, you’d think the 66 bus interacts with the 39 bus by crossing Huntington Ave on its way to Brookline Village. In reality, the 66 and 39 bus run together for a few stops blocks (Brigham Circle to just before Riverway.)

A screenshot of the newest map version
A screenshot from the T’s official bus map

With some smart stop spacing on the orange and green lines, I was able to make this work, as well as leave enough space for a walking connection from Riverway to Brookline Village (~5 minutes apart).

Then, after I had the E branch and orange line dealt with, I moved over to the rest of the green line

An unsymmetrical mess

As you can see, the design I went with last time was… ugly to say the least (strangely enough, I enjoy looking back at old work with contempt).

The reason for the weird design I went with last time was to avoid 45 degree angles. While I do still prefer nice horizontal text where possible, I no longer think it’s a good enough reason to sacrifice the aesthetics and simplicity that are possible with angled text. (plus, hopefully this won’t be a problem once the T consolidates some C branch stops)

In my new map, I opted to make the C branch perfectly straight (as it is irl), while the B and D branches form a square rotated 45 degrees.

This way, the map looks more symmetrical and elegant, while the text is still readable.

A fun quirk of this design is that it relies on the walking connection at St Mary’s St to achieve even stop spacing on the C branch.

Important for aesthetics and legibility, even stop spacing wasn’t easy to achieve because of the uneven number of stops between Coolidge Corner and St Marys St and Coolidge Corner to Cleveland Circle.


To get around this, I used the walking connection between BU Central, St Mary’s St and Fenway to shift the first stop on the C branch far enough down the branch. Without the walking connection, there would have been a massive change in stop spacing after Coolidge Corner (or, the 66 wouldn’t have been able to head directly through the middle of the green line).

KBR Design Process

Like the subway routes, I played with different layouts and paths to maximize simplicity of bus routes (i.e. not having a bunch of tiny “adjustment curves” on a route because the map wasn’t designed with them in mind) while also having a higher degree of accuracy.

On top of the aforementioned accuracy of the 66 bus, I also made sure the 39 was displayed accurately between Prudential and Copley / Back Bay. On the official T map, it’s shown as splitting after Symphony to serve either Back Bay or Copley. In reality, all 39 buses serve Copley on their way to Back Bay, and stop within a block of Copley on their way back to Forest Hills.

I also scaled down a the loops that the 1 and 116/117 do near the end of their routes to be closer to their actual route. (both loops are a matter of a few blocks)

Design Choices

In this section, I will briefly highlight some of the main changes I made from the current official map. These changes should (hopefully) help make the map more accurate, clear and useful for users.

  • De-emphasized the silver line: The silver line is a bus rapid transit (BRT) service that runs mostly in dedicated lanes (except for a brief tunneled section + the Ted Williams tunnel). However, the official map shows it as a rapid transit line, which is all around confusing and confusing. I can’t imagine being a tourist trying to find the elusive “silver line” at Downtown Crossing or Boylston… On my map, I decided to de-emphasize the silver line by using a thinner and lighter line. As a result, the map shows that the silver line is a different type of service, and that it is not as frequent or reliable as the other lines. (Plus, if I remember correctly, the silver line is full width for political reasons in the wake of “equal or better service” promises: not because it provides the same service)
  • Added major Boston parks and beaches: Boston is a city that has many beautiful and historic parks and beaches, such as the Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Esplanade, and the Revere Beach. However, the official map does not show these landmarks. Though these aren’t essential for getting around, having parks on the map adds character to the maps, and highlights some beautiful parts of Boston.
  • Added walking connections: One of the advantages of the MBTA system is that it has many stations that are close to each other, and that can be reached by walking. However, the official map does not show these walking connections. In areas where lines are a ~5-10 minute walk from one another, and aren’t redundant with other larger walking connections, (this is why I got rid of Dean Rd – Beaconsfield) I added a short dashed line to represent that you can walk between those stops. This way, the map shows the options and alternatives that the users have, encourages them to walk and explore the city, and can show different routes that riders can take to shave precious minutes off of their commute.
  • Refined the shoreline design: The official map uses a pseudo-geographic shoreline that is behind an abstract diagram of the transit lines. This can make the map look cluttered and inconsistent, and it can also create some distortions and inaccuracies. On my map, I opted to create a simplified shoreline, consisting entirely of 45 degree angles. The new shoreline matches the angles that the subway lines use, creating a seamless and coherent relationship between the transit lines and the geography in the background.
  • Simplified interchanges: The official map uses large blobs to indicate connections between transit lines and bus or commuter rail services. Although I understand their usefulness, and personally find that they make connections much clearer, I personally find that they clutter the map. On my map, I opted to use parallel blobs or perpendicular bus routes to show connections, which I prefer.

The Final Map:

As always, let me know if you have any feedback on the design! Hoping to release a version of this map with all of the BNRD “T” routes soon enough.

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not reflect those of the MBTA or any other organization. I am not affiliated with the MBTA or any other organization. I am just a map enthusiast who likes to redesign the MBTA map for fun and challenge. The complaints and criticisms that I make in this post are based on my personal preferences and nitpicks, and I am not trying to be overly critical of the T map. I appreciate and respect the work and effort that the MBTA and the map designers have put into creating and maintaining the official map.

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