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Robert Wightman

I am trying to plan a fall trip to Europe with my wife doing a lot by Eurail. I cannot find a map or system schedule, even a line by line schedule. I can find the times of trains between pairs of cities but but I can't find what routes they takes and what other stops they make. This is great if all you want to do is go from A to B but we want to explore and this isn't helpful.

I now know how long it takes to get from A to B and how often the train runs but I will leave the finer grained detail until I am in Europe. Hopefully I will be able to find route maps and schedules.

The things that I want in a map are frequency of service, hours of service and speed of service. Sometimes it is faster to take a circuitous rather than direct route if it uses faster and more frequent lines. All of this should be in a decent map


Robert, go o line and buy the European Rail Timetable's most recent addition. I has full maps and all trains and schedules. It is indespinsible and great for planning and geeking out.

Nate, great post. I think a very interesting decision is the one some transit agencies (including New Orleans RTA) make when they decide that the bus map has to show every grocery store , place of interest, attraction, park, and every single street in the city, when they could be focusing on developing a marketing tool like your Cincinnati map. Before Katrina, the New Orleans RTA had twice the lines and the map was twice as simple.

Richard Layman

If you haven't already, you might want to read up on maps and cartography. And even check out old road maps to see how they communicated information about local landmarks and places to see.

But wrt transit maps, another element you neglected to mention is that maps and printed transit information products are also marketing devices.


Non-topographical subway maps are good for finding your way within the the subway system, or for getting to landmarks whose existence can be deduced from the map (i.e. "Union Station", "Pentagon"). If you want to get to any place which does not have a station named after it, you must also look at a topographic street map to find the closest station.

In general, bus travel does not fit that model. Stops are very frequent and are not named, while people's destinations are diffuse and unlabeled (like their house, or the closest strip mall). For these purposes, topographic maps are absolutely necessary. (As a demonstration, pick a random house address in suburb Cincinnati. Find the bus route which goes closest to that house. Now imagine trying to do that on a map where all bus routes are evenly spaced straight lines.)

In the Cincinnati bus map you show a picture of, the central areas (especially north of downtown) should be zoomed in a little more, so that routes on different streets do not come so close to touching each other. Other than that, the map is great. The different colors make it easy to trace a route, and since no street has more than 2 or 3 routes on it, it isn't too hard to get information on each route and find the overall frequency. If the routes on this map look convoluted and inconvenient, it is likely because the routes themselves need to be optimized into more of a grid, not because the map is bad.


This post is a bit wordy, but your point is well taken. Claims of obsolescence are usually overstated, and transit maps are an example of this. Still, you do gloss over the transformational power the Google Transit has had. System maps which once were the absolutely indispensable tool for end users, are now only a tool for better understanding the system.

And this is a good thing. Many people lack the spatial sense to be able to translate map information into useful information. Whatever their means of travel, they know the routes they know and branching out beyond that is difficult, usually requiring someone to lead them through it. Tools like Google Transit open up more route opportunities for this group of people, and make them more likely to choose transit over a private car as a result.

It's not perfect: when I planned out my boss's transit route home, Google recommends transferring from the train to bus at the first intersection point with her route. But if you stay on the train for 3 more stops, you can catch the same bus while avoiding a 4 story stair climb and an busy road prone to traffic jams. Knowing the system better was useful, but she could still have gotten home based on the automated tool, which is critical to converting a non-transit user into a transit user.

Yuri Popov

There are many more flaws with Google Transit or similar "ready solutions". I wrote extensively about them about half a year ago: http://yopopov.blogspot.com/

Miles Bader

Certainly point-to-point services like Google's directions are not a replacement for non-point-to-point services like traditional system maps. This is not surprising ... :]

But focusing on Google directions only seems a bit of a strawman. Why limit the discussion to "Google transit versus hand-drawn maps"? Those are not the only two options.

For instance the obvious response to this article is "What about a transit layer for google maps?" Google maps does have "show transit", at least in some locations, although that particular feature is pretty rudimentary [as of yet]. But G.M.'s treatment of highways and major roads (sadly, roads receive a lot more attention!) is a much better example of what's possible

That wouldn't be the same as a hand-drawn system map of the type you talk about, but it's not really clear that the most distinctive features of hand-draw maps are really necessary given a zoomable dynamic G.M. style map. Much of the hard work of compressing and distorting (which would be hard [although not necessarily impossible] to automate well) is necessary mostly because of the limitations of physical paper, not because it necessarily yields a more usable result.

I think abstract paper maps are often a beautiful thing, and good to have around—you don't always have access to a phone/computer/whatever, and even if you do, they might not work, or you may simply not want to use them. But whether they're really the best thing for average everyday use isn't so clear....


As a computer professional, I must take some exception to the following:

To do so it makes value judgements, something a computer has never yet been capable of.

Of course computers can make "value judgements"--assuming the values to be be judged can be expressed algorithmically. Computerized expert systems are solving all sorts of algorithmically complex problems, in many complicated problem domains ranging from medical diagnosis, to automated driving of automobiles, to human language translations, to playing chess at a grandmaster level (and defeating the best human players in the world), to winning on Jeopardy (a decidedly different game than chess). Compared to many of these, figuring out how to best navigate a city's public transportation system is easy stuff--assuming the relevant data is available. Just because current implementations are suboptimal, doesn't mean that a transit wayfinding application cannot be programmed to prefer the frequent bus two blocks down to the hourly bus on the current street--unless, of course, the next infrequent bus is coming in five minutes.

The difficulty is that often times, it is difficult to quantize, or express algorithmically, a person's values. Ask yourself--what criteria would you use to choose between a closer, more infrequent service, and a parallel frequent service that requires more walking to reach? Your walking speed and level of fitness? The difference between the headways? Which bus will be there first according to the schedule? Which will be their first in actuality (a criterion that requires real-time arrival data, something that a static map cannot portray)? The speed and/or reliability of the two lines? Many people don't know (or cannot express) their own algorithms for making this sort of decision--assuming they have one, rather than going with "gut feel" (essentially introducing some degree of non-determinism into the process), and then complain when an automated solution disagrees with their gut.

Some of us, of course, will prefer to navigate the old fashioned way--with a map and a timetable. And these tools are valuable for a holistic understanding of a transit system. But for answering the question "how to I get from here to there, in this time frame", wayfinding tools can and should exist that give correct and concise answers; generating such tools is hardly beyond the reach of computer science.

Ben Pease

This has probably been covered somewhere, but my big bugaboo is maps such as your Cincinnati example where downtown is drawn as blank box. The inset should take the weight off the center of the map but not entirely erase it. The main map should show the essentials of downtown, at least show thin routes so we can tell if lines entering the box cross through it or terminate in it.

When planning a trip to a village outside Turin, Italy, I was delighted how much info there was on GTT's website, much of it linked to a Google map layer. But as far as schedules, many of the rural routes run a couple times per day and each variation has its own schedule number (which does not relate to the numbers on the busses themselves - one could say the #5 is a suite of varations). When I tried looking up which busses serve specific stops before our trip (in California), I get dialogue boxes saying the next bus won't be arriving for 12 hours (it's nighttime in Italy). Also I was puzzled how people can take the bus to work but there were no buses after 2 PM. After a couple weeks I figured out there's an entirely different #5 that comes back late in the day from an entirely different transit center.

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