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Map contest winners, part 2: Familiar clarity and simplicity

Most of the maps in our map contest reimagined the Metro map in diverse and interesting ways. One of the maps took the opposite tack, changing as little as possible.

Our jury chose to give their top award to that map, Map G, by Nathaniel Grier. Many readers agreed; Map G received 88 first-place votes, the fourth-most in the contest.

Map G, by Nathaniel Grier.

Whereas Cameron Booth wrote that he viewed the coming map changes as a "chance to create something entirely new and start with a clean slate, not an adaptation of a 30-year-old design," the jury felt that the 30-year-old design served riders well and was very recognizable.

The jurors liked the way this map retains the "bold colors and lines" from the current map. One wrote, "people have already internalized its contours." In fact, they wrote in their summary notes to me, "The contest enhanced our appreciation of the original map and left us hoping that Lance Wyman can duplicate his initial feat of clarity and simplicity."

They also liked this map's use of dashed lines to denote the planned rush hour-only services between Franconia and Greenbelt and between West Falls Church and Largo. That is one of the toughest elements and a primary motivation for this map redesign.

In fact, the jurors wrote, "It turns out that including the Dulles Line isn't the hardest part; it's illustrating the differences in rush hour schedules, including the diversion of some trains to the Yellow Line Bridge."

The jury recognized that there are many elements of the map that could be changed to make it a more polished product. The parking icons, as discussed yesterday, are one of those. In addition, the jurors wrote that:

  • Using dashed lines to represent both intermittent service and a line under construction could be confusing
  • Enlarged circles for the Silver-Orange-Blue Lines are awkward
  • It would have been good to figure out a way to minimize the service bubbles.
There is something of an inherent contradiction here: The jury didn't like the enlarged circles, yet chose a map with familiar, "bold" lines. Three thick lines don't work with a small circle like those on the current map. If WMATA ultimately wants consistent station symbols, they'll need to either change to thinner lines, larger symbols, non-circular symbols, or something more radical like Booth's small gaps. A few maps tried creative solutions to this problem, and we'll look at some of those in upcoming parts.

The product of Lance Wyman's efforts is likely to look very similar to what we're familiar with, but in a way that shows the Silver Line and new services. Some design weaknesses, such as the parking icons, will be fixed, and this contest will give WMATA an opportunity to see many different ideas for other, small innovations. In the next few days, we'll see a few other maps that tried some of these and the reactions from readers and the jury.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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There's also the fact that as Metro's operating system gets more complex, the simple color-based route structure will no longer be sufficient to accurately describe/show service patterns.

by Alex B. on May 25, 2011 1:13 pm • linkreport

The enlarged circles do look awkward; I think ovals would have been better.

by Martin on May 25, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: I agree. I'm thinking more and more than we should have numbered or lettered services like New York. Perhaps keep the same colors we currently have though.

It's quite counterintuitive to have multiple services with the same color and same name. The service called the "Yellow Line" and colored yellow, for example, will have at least three different sets of start and endpoints.

Maybe we could have a transition period in which all services would get a letter or number and their color, then eventually switch to a system like New York's, where the color is on the maps and the route logos, but not in its official name.

by Tim on May 25, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

This was my favorite. I'm surprised more people didn't go with some variation of the original map.

I don't think we will need to go to some letter or number combination anytime soon. The fact is you really don't need to get that precise in describing service to most (maybe any?) users. Take a look at the London Tube map, in particular the Northern, Metropolitan, and District Lines. There are several combinations of service but they don't give each a different line, they just use the destinations to describe the service. If London doesn't need letters or numbers, we certainly don't. In fact, if we were to use London as an example, you could even combine the Yellow and Green into one line and Orange and Silver (and maybe even Blue) into one line.

by Steven Yates on May 25, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

Agreed. Have an O1 or O2 route. Have an Y1, Y2, or Y3 route. Otherwise you're going to have people - tourists and commuters alike - who are at one endpoint when they should be at another.

by Michael on May 25, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

i like it, but what about the red line trains that terminate @ silver spring? although that'd require another bubble...

by JessMan on May 25, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

I'm against the idea of using numbered/lettered routes. Just use prominent stations, areas, or even the line's endpoints. Many systems do this now with any issue. Londoners and tourists don't have trouble understanding what the Picadilly or the Hammersmith and City lines are.

Rename the Orange line to the Arlington line.
Rename the Green line to the Prince George line.
Rename the Yellow line, non-rush, to the Alexandria line.
Rename the Yellow line, rush, to the Springfield and Fort Totten line.
Rename the Red line to the Montgomery line.
Rename the Blue line to the Central line.
Rename the Silver line to something that I can't think of.

by Sam on May 25, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

Silver could be the Tysons or Dulles line.

by Michael on May 25, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

Don't you mean the Prince George/U Street/Penn Quarter/St. Elizabeth/UMDCP/Af-Am Civ Wr Mem/Serpukhovsky Timiryazevskaya Line?

Let's stick to numbered services or something stupid simple.

by Neil Flanagan on May 25, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

Or, even better... use historical figures. The Jefferson Line, the Madison Line, the Franklin Line, the Lincoln Line (this could be the one that goes to PGC because... you know... Relax, everyone, I kid), etc.

by Sam on May 25, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

Or how about:


That list could be endless. But it opens the possibility for many more metro lines to fit the names!

by William on May 25, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

I'd slim down the Yellow/Orange/Silver amalgamation a bit more than it already is. Also, it could just be an optical illusion, but the silver line looks a bit thicker than the others... The thickness of the western portion of the Orange line (and the positioning of the station markers) makes no sense in relationship to the rest of the map.

Because of this, Union Station (the busiest in the system) gets buried in a sea of labels.

I don't like the treatment of the Yellow Line. Those boxes are too verbose, and it's still not obviously clear that YL trains stop at Mt. Vernon Square during rush hour. The callout boxes are too verbose.

To nitpick further, set the labels for the outer two Silver Line stations at the same angle as the rest of them, and shade out the text on the unopened stations. If I looked at this map, I'd think that the silver line was open.

Other nitpick: Just call it the "B30 to BWI Airport." A little less verbose. Also, set Route 772 and Route 606 at the same angle as the other Silver Line labels.

That's not to say that the evolutionary approach is bad. Odds are, this will be the approach that Metro takes, and there's a lot to be said for it. However, that doesn't mean that every core element of the design is off-limits.

Even if we're keeping the same basic design, we still have an opportunity correct many of its flaws.

by andrew on May 25, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

Well, it has some flaws but those could be easily fixed. Good job.

by NikolasM on May 25, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

@ Steven Yates

First major problem I can see with this happening is trains going to destinations which contradict what the operator, PID, signs on train say. It happens frequently on the Red line

Second is WMATA does a bad job of explaining stuff do you really trust them to effectively explain this to riders without causing confusion of some type.

Thrid operators dont always say where the train is going I have seen this done on the Blue and Red lines. Now what happens if a blind person is on or a deaf person on one of the older trains ?

by kk on May 25, 2011 3:03 pm • linkreport

This map most reminded me of the Tonka trucks and blocks I played w/in my youth.

I personally don't care for the bolded lines but do like the dashes to denote rush hour trains as opposed to the other favored design (i think it was C).

by HogWash on May 25, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I totally disagree with your jury. With the exception of the couple of maps that were poorly drawn, this was my least favorite map. The current map is so familiar to longtime Washingtonians that we forget just how utterly confusing and misleading it is to visitors. A few examples, most of them based on my own interactions with tourists and businesspeople:

1. Why is Metro Center the closest station to the White House on this map?
2. Map: Foggy Bottom is twice as far as Smithsonian from the Lincoln Memorial. Reality: the exact opposite.
3. So the Yellow and Orange lines are still under construction, right?
4. Map: Friendship Heights and Southern Ave are firmly in Maryland. Reality: both stations straddle the border.

And, last but not least, the one that EVERY ONE of us has heard dozens of tourists say:
5. "Honey, don't get on that train. We need a Glenmont train to Union Station, and that train says Silver Spring." It's been the #1 cause of confused tourists for years, and this map does nothing to help.

by tom veil on May 25, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

A far more complicated system is Tokyo. They've attempted to make things a little easier to navigate by adding letters and numbers to all the station names that many foreigners don't understand. The system uses a whole bunch of colors and shows key landmarks such as the Yamanote line (Tokyo's beltway, but in train form). A key component that I like is that they've given each line a name and then used the first letter of that name as the identifier for the stations. For example, all the stations on the Ginza line are identified as G-01, G-02, G-03, etc... with the actual name of the station then located next to the box identifying where the station is located. Here is a map:

And a more detailed explanation:

I think naming the lines after Presidents or other Washington things would be a good start.

I don't think all of the possible route combinations need to be shown. I've ridden many different systems and it doesn't surprise me that all of the trains don't go to the end of the lines.

by Rob on May 25, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

I totally agree with tom veil. We locals are used to the current map and its idiosyncrasies, but for all intents and purposes with the metro map iconic =/= functional. Yesterday's map addressed the majority of the design flaws that this map failed to account for and allows for growth well into the future. It wasn't perfect, but it was a far better map.

That said, this being DC, I'm not surprised that the most conservative, familiar design emerged victorious.

by anonymous on May 25, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

All I can do at this point is quote from the notes I wrote when I was voting... when I obviously didn't know who was going to win:

"MAP G - The current diagram withe the Silver Line added - no distinction betwen the two phases that I can see. Changing the beltline to a new color is a good idea. The problems with the current diagram are shown to their full extent here: cluttered, overcrowded, inconsistent."

by Cameron Booth on May 25, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

I agree with Cameron, anonymous, and tom veil.

I also think the jury realized the problems with this map, David highlighted them in the post. The problem, however, is that any successful resolution of those issues means abandoning the very elements they praised.

Every choice in emphasis is a trade-off. You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Since this is essentially a graphic design challenge, perhaps a greater representation of graphic designers on the jury would have been appropriate.

by Alex B. on May 25, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

How hard would it be to add 4 extra lines on there it would save confusion in the end. All you have to do is write 1,2,3,4 lines only operate during 0:00 - 0:00 Time

Why do all lines need a separate color in the center ?

Blue, Orange and Silver between Stadium Armory to Rosslyn
Blue, Yellow between King Street and Pentagon
Yellow, Green between L'Enfant Plaza and Ft Totten.
Red Line/s between Silver Spring and Grovesnor

Think of how the bus maps are in the schedules you see one line and then branches you could have the part shared with one color and then the branches as separate colors.

You could show them all merging into one color where the two lines join it could be as easy as combining Blue, Orange and Silver at Rosslyn resulting in a Dark Yellowish color and that color separating to Blue and Orange after Stadium Armory.

by kk on May 25, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

I fully agree with tom veil. Also, the pop-up bubbles look terrible.

Once again, the map is mainly for tourists, and this one simply does not work for them.

I also agree that having the map show all the variations isnt a good thing. So what if some trains terminate early?

by JJJJJ on May 25, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

I actually prefer the style used in the WMATA-produced thin-line map from 2003 (see I don't get why we would stick to the current line thinkness and just slightly thin the Silver, Blue and Orange line through the core. WMATA's thin line map has lines of an OK and consistant thickness.

I again would reiterate the point that it'd be easier to make the peak-only services be branches of Blue and Green instead of Orange and Yellow. Along with having two Red lines and having different line styles for peak-only and off-peak-only service, it would eliminate the need for the callout boxes. You could put the hours of operation in the legend.

by Mario on May 25, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

How about this:

Each terminal station has its name printed much bigger, and bolder. (This makes sense on its own). Beneath it, there's a small explanatory notice.

Some Trains Terminate at Grosvenor

Many Yellow Line Trains Terminate at Fort Totten or Mt. Vernon Sq. See Below.

by andrew on May 25, 2011 5:38 pm • linkreport

Seconding Cameron Booth's comment.

While this is familiar, it doesn't adequately reflect the substantial changes in operations or the revitalization of many parts of DC.

Cameron's map is a little too soft and detailed, but I think it's a step in the right direction. This map shows the limits of Wyman's original design.

Does anyone know when metro will be releasing the new one?

by Neil Flanagan on May 25, 2011 5:41 pm • linkreport

While we're looking at tourist problems: perhaps we could have signs at the platforms that say something like, "Train may stop after this point" to prevent the crushing backlogs at Chinatown and confused travellers with luggage at Union Station.

Regarding the map, I concur with the comments made. Although certain design elements might remain, such as the station icons, our metro map should reflect how to get from Landmark A to Landmark B as well as how to get from your house to that party at that stop you've never heard of.

by OctaviusIII on May 25, 2011 6:08 pm • linkreport

I have to say I'm dissappointed in the judges decision. Clearly 88 against 491 1st place votes must mean something. Maybe that the people of DC are wanting a change?

I find this map Chunky, cluttered and confusing. Much like the old map tbh. I feel like the Judges are the ones who are afraid of change. What was the point in having this competition and making people vote if you wanted similarity.

Cameron Booth's was fresh and easy to understand. It was clearly the winner and the people choice favourite. Maybe the judges should revisit these maps or go to the streets and ask the people and tourists which they like the best or have a second vote between these two im sure Cameron's will come out on top then too.

by Claire King on May 25, 2011 8:31 pm • linkreport

I do not understand why we get orange lines to Largo and yellow ones to Franconia-Springfield. This makes things way too complex. There are several easy ways around this issue:

1) Create new colors, and make the service a regular part of the system. A brown line from Vienna to Largo. A pink line from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt.

2) Use the color of the final station. Blue line from Vienna to Largo. Orange line from Largo to Vienna. This gets a bit ambiguous for the blue lines from Greenbelt to F-S, but that's the only case.

3) Let the trains change color halfway through. Train leaves as orange from Vienna, turns blue in Foggy Bottom. Plenty of time for customers to change trains. In NYC, trains change directions and go express or local all the time. Somehow, people survive, be it that it's a bit confusing at times.

All in all, things are getting complex. There is no way around that. So whatever you do, it's gonna be a bit confusing.

PS: I find it ridiculous to rename our simple color system by something else "simple", such as presidents. Can you imagine the Congressional outrage on why there are three of one, and two of the other party?

by Jasper on May 25, 2011 8:51 pm • linkreport

Other transit systems seem to have no problem with multiple termini.

That said, the system does need to be kept simpler than normal, if only because there a lot of tourists in DC -- particularly many American tourists that have never used trains or transit of any kind. The DC Metro should not take on New York's reputation for a confusing and hostile transit system. (We're not New York, but damnit, our subway is better!)

One scenario that the map really needs to envision is the tourist who sees a Grosvenor train, and has no idea where it's going. The current map, and many of the proposed maps don't do quite enough to highlight terminal destinations. The in-station wayfinding signage also needs to address this better.

If the service pattern grows more complex, we may start having to use numbered routes on each line (likely giving Blue/Orange the same color until Blue gets its own downtown alignment).

by andrew on May 25, 2011 11:57 pm • linkreport

Full disclosure: I voted for B and C, and only those two, for reasons similar to what Claire noted.

by Froggie on May 26, 2011 7:56 am • linkreport

The map badly mis-represents the path of the Silver Line north/west
of East Falls Church. This map makes it seem that the Silver Line
goes out along VA Route 7 (or perhaps Georgetown Pike) the whole

Several other maps did a better job of showing that the Silver Line
travels more west than north-west, which would be MUCH less confusing
to travellers using MetroRail for the first time.

Last, and most important, any MetroRail map ought to be optimised for newcomers/tourists, rather than optimising for people already familiar
with Metro. Folks familiar with Metro don't rely on any map nearly so much.

by Anonymous on May 26, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

Wow. I hated this map. I ranked it last. This is an opportunity to REDESIGN the map, not just band-aid the current one and over clutter it. I'm disappointed that so many people are latching onto the past here. Come on, folks! Think critically! :-)

by Matt Glazewski on May 26, 2011 7:13 pm • linkreport

Really this is the best you could do; picking a map that looks almost identical to the original?
DC is a new, reborn city, and it needs a new metro map.

by Jonathan on May 26, 2011 9:28 pm • linkreport

A disappointing yet unsurprising choice from the jury.

This is essentially the old map with a couple of confusing dashed lines, A LOT of notations, and nothing to denote the new alignment of the Blue Line over the Potomac to the Yellow/Green.

by Michael on May 27, 2011 10:20 am • linkreport

The diversion of the Blue Line across the Potomac is handled the exact same way on this map as it was handled on the other 3 maps we've posted as winners of the contest: as the Yellow Line.

Booth's map, Alpert's map, and my map all show the Franconia-Greenbelt service as Yellow. Just like this map.

by Matt Johnson on May 27, 2011 10:24 am • linkreport

Rather than enlarged circles, I would have gone with narrowing the lines. The dashed lines could have become solid. This would mean that you would have narrow lines representing both 3-line, permanent service and rush-hour only service, but that could have been addressed easily in the legend.

by Omar on May 27, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

This was one of my least favorite map/schematics as well! I am a cartographer. I am a DC region native. I believe in keeping certain elements of the original map as well, but this was the least creative.

I was looking for entries that were more pleasing to the eye from far distances as well as close up. In addition, my litmus test of improving the current map's readability was the McPhearson Square stop. It's easy to miss this stop amid the clutter of the red/orange/blue lines near Metro Center and this map did not try to improve the clarity in this area. I KNOW tourists miss this on the map and get confused.

The choice for the Beltway line thickness and color makes it stand out on the map too prominently (it should have a lower hierarchy!). much for creativity!

by CK on May 29, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

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