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Posts about Maps


This map illustrates DC's new zoning rules

Zoning is the legal framework that shapes just what can be built where in most cities, and DC just enacted a new zoning code. It's pretty detailed, but we're in luck: the the District's Office of Zoning made this interactive map to illustrate where different zones are, what they mean, and why they're organized it that way.

Click to explore DC's new zoning map, including its quick descriptions of each zone.

The map is one of many the zoning office has published to explain the changeover. If you click the image above, you'll see a sidebar that shows the eight categories that define how land in DC can be used: Residential; Residential Flat; Residential Apartment; Neighborhood Mixed Use; Mixed Use; Downtown; Production, Distribution and Repair; and Special Purpose.

Clicking on the individual colored areas will bring up will bring up the specific "zone district," one of the three parts of zoning that regulate the use and shape of a building. The others are the rules that apply everywhere in the city and processes that give the regulations flexibility, like Planned Unit Developments. But zone districts are the rules that shape specific neighborhoods, and it's usually what people are talking about when they mention zoning.

Residential Flat (RF) is one of three types of Residential zones. Below, you can see examples of the others. Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

By breaking down the official map into the big categories and color coding them, you can see patterns. For example, the yellow and orange shapes show areas where only houses, flats, or apartment buildings can be built. At a glance, over half of DC's residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family housesthat's conservative, since most other zones also allow single-family houses.

Image from DC's Office of Zoning.

The new code organizes zone districts for residential use by building type: single family houses (R), flats in small apartment buildings and subdivided rowhouses (RF), and large apartment buildings (RA).

Residential Apartment (RA). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Residential (R). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Zooming in on Historic Anacostia, the map below shows the denser RA and RF areas closer to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. SE, with the area uphill restricted to townhouse, duplex or detached houses by their R-3 zone designation.

It might also look like there's a lot of land across the city that's zoned RA. But looking closer, a lot of this land is for campuses like those of American University, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or built out with low-rise garden apartments in areas like McLean Gardens and Congress Heights.

Commercial zones saw a bigger change

The new code has no purely commercial zones. The downtown zone districts (D), meant for the dense core at the center of the city, don't exclude apartments. Some even incentivize residential buildings by letting apartments be denser.

Downtown (D). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Farther out, medium-density commercial areas are now called Mixed Use (MU), to reflect that the code encourages both commercial and residential in those areas. That's not new, but the name of old districts like "C-2-A" suggested otherwise.

Mixed Use (MU). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

A good example can be found around Mount Vernon Triangle and Northwest One: it's mostly zoned D and MU, and many of the new residences built there are not in residential zone districts.

H Street NE was one of several areas used to have "overlays" added to modify the standard zone districts in a geographic area. Sometimes those modifications were the same across commercial and residential properties, but often they laid out custom rules for every single zone district the overlay touched. To figure out what was allowed on a given property, you'd first look in one chapter of the code for the "base zoning," then flip to another chapter for the overlay.

H Street's old zoning.

Now, each of the existing combination of zones has been given its own subsection. Small commercial strips like H Street fall into distinct moderate-density neighborhood mixed use (NC) zones, meant to create a special character for individual neighborhood main streets, like Georgia Avenue and Carroll Street in Takoma.

Neighborhood Mixed Use (NC). Photo from DC's Office of Zoning.

Now, the overlay and base zoning information is all in one place, from the statement of purpose to technical restrictions. The same is true for the Special Purpose customized zones, used meant to give big areas like Uptown Arts on U and 14th Streets (ARTS), or at Walter Reed (WR) unique characteristics.

H Street's zoning under the new code.

Zoom in on the map and click on a parcel, and the map will show a quick description of the site's zoning. This little chunk of Howard University's campus is one of the few remaining industrial (PDR, short for Production Distribution & Repair) zones in DC's northwest quadrant.

Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR). Photo from DC's Office of Planning.

None of these have industrial uses anymore; this lots is a development called Wonder Plaza, with fast-food eateries and no heavy machinery.

Perhaps this PDR designation was just kept by inertia; I'm not sure I would have noticed that without this map.

For me, the new organization of the code and the Office of Zoning's map help with understanding not only what someone could build on some plot of land, but also how earlier planners shaped the the city and what might need to change. What does this map help you see?

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that over half of DC's residential land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. That isn't the case; over half the land is zoned exclusively for single-family houses, but not detached single-family houses.


We know where most of DC's population lives. Does Metro run through those places?

The maps below show where DC's most densely-populated pockets are, as well as where its Metro stops are. It turns out they aren't always the same places, or in other words, DC isn't building enough around transit.

Highest density census tracts comprising 50% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay. Map by John Ricco, overlay by Peter Dovak.

Back in July, John Ricco created a pair of maps showing that 50% of DC's residents live on 20% of the land, and a quarter of the population lives on just 7% of the land. Peter Dovak, another Greater Greater Washington contributor, did me the favor of overlaying John's maps onto the Metro system.

Looking at the map above, which shows where 50% of the population lives, there are some obvious areas of overlap between density and Metrorail access, including the Green/Yellow corridor through Shaw, Columbia Heights, and Petworth. The southern area of Capitol Hill also has multiple Metro stops and is relatively dense.

But what stands out are the dense places that aren't near Metro. The northern end of Capitol Hill, including the H Street corridor and Carver Langston, as well as the areas to the west around Glover Park, a few tracts to the north near Brightwood, and two larger areas east and west of the Green Line in Ward 8, near Congress Heights and Fort Stanton Park.

All of these places show that DC's growth isn't being concentrated around its transit (its transit isn't being extended to serve dense areas either, but that's harder to do).

Of course, Metro is far from the only way to get around. Residents of high density, Metro-inaccessible neighborhoods rely on buses and other modes to get where they need to go; specific to northern Capitol Hill, for example, there's also the DC Streetcar). Also, some areas next to Metro stops are low density due to zoning that restricts density or land nobody can build on, like federal land, rivers, and parks.

Still, it's useful to look at where DC's high-density neighborhoods and its high-density transit modes don't overlap, and to understand why.

25% of DC's population lives close to metro... mostly

Really, the S-shaped routing of the Green Line is the only part of Metro in DC that runs through a super dense area for multiple stops.

Looking at the map that shows 25% of the District's population, the Green/Yellow corridor helps make up the 7% of land where people live. But so does Glover Park, Carver Langston, and a tract in Anacostia Washington Highlands near the Maryland border—and these places are a long way from a Metro stop.

Highest density census tracts comprising 25% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay.

There are historical reasons for why things are this way

According to Zachary Schrag in The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Metro wasn't meant to be an urban subway; it was always meant to be a regional rail system. It explicitly bypassed the relatively few people in DC's high-density areas, in favor of speeding up rides for the greater number of through-commuters. Apparently, DC had little say in that decision, which is evident in the map.

On the other hand, the citywide streetcar plan was meant to bring rail access to many more DC residents—partly because, well, it was to be built by DC's government, for DC's residents, which Metro was not.

The first version of this post said that a tract was in Anacostia, but it's actually in Washington Highlands.


Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


Does the US highway system have high cholesterol?

Similar to how veins and arteries pump blood to and from our hearts, our infrastructure moves people and materials around the country. In this video, Metrocosm's Max Galka took 24 hours' worth of highway traffic and visualized it to look like the human circulatory system.

Max made the visual using the raw data that the US Department of Transportation used for its July summary of traffic volume trends across the country (it puts one out each month). Here, you're seeing traffic volume counts for every hour of every day at about 4,000 traffic counting stations nationwide, which adds up to about 14 million datapoints in all.

Max noted the following when we emailed about his map:

For the most part, the traffic is concentrated just where you would expect, in the most populous areas: New York, LA, Chicago, Florida, Texas. But if you look at the map, you will notice that there is one spot where many of the major routes converge, which I was surprised to discover is Nashville.

I was also surprised by the pattern of traffic across the day. Rather than spiking at rush hour in the morning and again in the evening, the volume of traffic on the interstate grows steadily throughout the day, peaking at 4pm and falling off from there.

What do you notice when you watch?


This is the best route for checking out DC's breweries

It's DC beer week, an annual event that celebrates local brewers, who add to the region's character and economy. There are ten brewers in DC plus one that's just across the border in Silver Spring. To see them all, I created what I'm calling the Washington Beer Trail.

Map by the author.

These are the breweries on the trail, which I selected by narrowing down Kate Rabinowitz's dataset of over 70 breweries and brewpubs around DC:

  1. Capitol City Brewing Company (1100 New York Avenue NW)

  2. District Chophouse & Brewery (509 7th Street NW)

  3. Bluejacket (300 Tingey Street SE)

  4. Bardo (1200 Bladensburg Road NE)

  5. Atlas Brew Works (2052 West Virginia Avenue NE)

  6. DC Brau Brewing (3178B Bladensburg Road NE)

  7. The Public Option (1601 Rhode Island Avenue NE)

  8. Right Proper Brewing Company (920 Girard Street NE)

  9. Hellbender (5788 2nd Street NE)

  10. Three Star Brewing (6400 Chillum Place NW)

  11. Denizens Brewing Company (1115 East-West Highway)

The inspiration for the beer trail comes from Dr. Randy Olson. Dr. Olson has gained notoriety for using genetic algorithms to compute the fastest road trips across the United States and Europe. While genetic algorithms are less necessary when you're mapping out 11 locations in a relatively small place, they're quite fascinating when you're thinking about, say, a road trip that spans a whole continent.

If seeing eleven brewers in a single day is not for you, or if you'd prefer to walk or bike between locations, a truncated version of the beer trail is also possible: Start at Bardo (#4), continue on to Atlas Brew Works (#5), skip DC Brau if navigating New York Avenue on bike isn't for you, next hit the The Public Option (#7), and finish at Right Proper Brewing Company (#8).

If you're hungry by the end, grab some fantastic Neapolitan pizza at Menomale at 12th and Franklin NE before you get to Right Proper.

All of these establishments are open on Saturday, and most stay open as late as 9 or 10 pm. Hellbender and Three Star, however, close much earlier at 7 and 5 pm, respectively. Plan accordingly.

Did I miss a brewery or your favorite brewpub? Should beer gardens and notable beer bars be included next year? Let me hear about it in the comments below.

The code and data I used to create the beer trail can be found on my Github.


Use this tool to see how often Metrobuses come to a particular stop, and where they go from there

Metrobus is a great way to get around, but some people avoid it because it's not easy to remember where, exactly, buses run, or when they come to your stop. A new tool from Metro hopes to make finding that information a lot easier.

Image from WMATA.

With Metrorail, maps, charts showing the next stop, and PIDs all make it clear where train lines go, when they come, and where they stop. With the bus network, it can be hard to provide such detailed information at each stop because it's far larger and more complicated.

WMATA has made big strides by adding real-time arrival boards to some bus stations, and in 2012 the agency introduced a new bus map that makes it clearer where each line runs. But that map still has quite a bit going on, especially if you're trying to use an online version by loading it on a small screen or picking between multiple route options.

To address this issue, planners at WMATA have developed Metrobus Explorer, an online tool that gives users real-time arrival displays and a personalized spider map showing where bus lines from a given stop run to. Spider maps clear the clutter of information a typical bus map gives riders, allowing them to see only the routes and stops relevant to them.

Here, we've selected three bus stops that run along Michigan Avenue, just north of the McMillan Reservoir and south of Washington Hospital Center. When you hover your mouse over the stops in the app, you see how many buses run there per hour.

Metrobus Explorer shows you a map of all the region's Metrobus stops, marked with larger dots for locations with more frequent service. It then allows you to select one or more stops. After selecting the stop (or stops) you want information for, a second map showing the routes available from those stops and their destinations is displayed.

The tool shows us which bus lines run from these stops and where they go.

The information is available for each hour of the day, reflecting the changes in frequency throughout the day. For a route view in both directions of a bus line, you need to select the stop on both sides of the street.

Metrobus Explorer is a great tool for riders; something that provides accurate, easy-to-understand information should help increase bus ridership. That said, the current version of Metrobus Explorer is a bit clunky and in order to create a full working version to be incorporate into, WMATA would like hear your feedback.

WMATA is hoping to hear from users on the following:

  1. Would the tool be useful?
  2. What features are important? Would you like to be able to print your personalized spider map?
  3. What is missing? Should the route lines' thickness vary depending on headway?
  4. Should this be available on mobile? Would that be more or less useful than BusETA or other transit planning apps?
You can comment directly on the Metro planning page or leave a comment with your thoughts below.


Silver Spring doesn't have actual boundaries. So we asked residents what they were.

As an unincorporated place, Silver Spring's boundaries aren't really defined. So I asked people what their Silver Spring looks like.

What Silver Spring residents say are Silver Spring's boundaries. The darkergreen areas are where people agree. Image by Christy Batta.

Since its founding in the 1840s, Silver Spring has been an unincorporated community, meaning it's not a town or city with official boundaries and local government. As a result, there's disagreement over where the boundaries are. Some only include downtown and neighborhoods inside the Beltway, or what I call "Little Silver Spring." Others have a broader definition that covers much of eastern Montgomery County, or what I call "Big Silver Spring."

Two years ago, local graphic designer Christy Batta and I, working with local marketing company Silver Spring Inc, created this map, which represents all of the Silver Spring zip codes assigned by the US Postal Service. We went to different community events across the area, from Fenton Street Market to a food truck event in Wheaton, and asked people to mark up the map with their personal definition.

We received 66 responses, and Christy merged all of them together to create the image above. (Here's a folder with all of the individual responses.) The darker areas are where more people agree on the boundaries. Most responses fell into four camps:

23 people defined Silver Spring as being entirely inside the Beltway, which includes downtown and adjacent neighborhoods like Woodside Park and East Silver Spring. Some people included Long Branch and Lyttonsville, which are both inside the Beltway but across major barriers like Sligo Creek Park and the Red Line. Others included part or all of the City of Takoma Park. This is basically the Census Bureau's definition of Silver Spring, and includes the oldest parts of the area, built before World War II.

Another 15 people defined Silver Spring as everything south of University Boulevard, which adds Four Corners, Forest Glen, and Wheaton.

A third group of 13 people included everything south of Randolph Road, which includes Glenmont, Kemp Mill, Colesville, and White Oak.

A final group of 15 people basically colored in all of East County, out to the Prince George's County and Howard County lines, including semi-rural places like Burtonsville and Cloverly. A few of these people threw in parts of surrounding counties and even DC.

The maps suggest a couple of different themes. One is that people use major roads or natural features like Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch as "mental" boundaries. Another boundary might be changes in the built environment. North of University Boulevard, Silver Spring becomes much more suburban and spread-out in nature, which looks and feels very different than the older, more urban neighborhoods closer in. You can feel it driving north on Colesville Road, which goes from a downtown main street to basically a freeway in just a few miles.

These places are 15 miles apart and very different, but some say they're both Silver Spring. Photos by the author.

A place isn't necessarily defined by what's on a map

Even where places have official boundaries, our idea of that place varies. British researcher Alasdair Rae asked people to draw the boundaries of several cities around the world and found very different interpretations, like maps of New York City that include huge chunks of New Jersey's urban areas.

Of course, New York has actual boundaries. But places like Jersey City or Hoboken might feel "enough" like New York that people include them in their "conception" of New York. Likewise, Silver Spring residents define their boundaries based on what they "see" as their community, whether it's based on physical barriers, look and feel, people, preferred hangouts, or anything else.

How would you define Silver Spring's boundaries?


Here's how DC's state-named avenues got their names

Earlier in the summer, we re-visited the reasoning behind why Washington, DC's street naming system. From A Street to Verbena Street and from Half to Sixty-Third, DC's lettered and numbered streets make it difficult to get lost with their logical progressions.

Photo by the author.

But DC's transverse diagonal avenues confound everyone from tourists to suburban motorists. Not only do they break all the grid rules, they even manage to break up the grid itself in many places, like H Street, NW at New York Avenue. And to make matters worse, they often skip across parks, rivers, even entire neighborhoods, before starting up again, sometimes even on a different heading.

Locals have mostly figured out where the avenues are, at least the major ones. Maryland residents use many of these broad streets as their connections to downtown, but a short street like North Dakota Avenue goes unnoticed by almost everyone outside the immediate neighborhood.

Penn. radiates from the Capitol
In fact, when the city was first established, the organized naming system extended to state-named avenues as well. It was not quite as intuitive as the numbered and lettered streets, but with only nineteen avenues, it was still easy to understand.

As I noted before, the plan of the city was meant to reflect the structure of the government. For that reason, the city's quadrants are centered on the Capitol Rotunda. The state-named avenues are no exception. Being the major streets of the city, L'Enfant's plan placed many of them so that they emanated from certain points. In this regard, they provided long unobstructed views toward the icons of our nascent government.

Yellow denotes sections which have disappeared.

From the Capitol, North Capitol Street stretches northward, followed in a clockwise direction by Delaware Avenue, Maryland Avenue, East Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, South Capitol Street, Delaware Avenue, the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue, and New Jersey Avenue.

From the White House, Sixteenth Street forms the major axis. In fact, Thomas Jefferson intended it to become the Prime Meridian, which is where Meridian Hill Park gets its name. Moving clockwise, one encounters Vermont Avenue, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Connecticut Avenue.

Yellow denotes sections which have disappeared.

Today, some avenues are more important than others. This is due, in large part, to where it is they connect to, not any particular naming convention.

The grand avenue, home to everything from Inaugural Parades to festivals of all sorts, is Pennsylvania Avenue. Connecting the Legislative and Executive branches, it was always meant to be the heart of Washington. In the southeast, it continues as a major roadway toward central Prince George's County, Maryland.

Similarly, Connecticut, Georgia, and New York all are major thoroughfares to outlying parts of the region. Another important street is Wisconsin Avenue, running from M Street in Georgetown to the Beltway north of Bethesda; it was an important road long before the name was applied. As late as 1903, it was still called the Georgetown and Rockville Pike. This historic name is the basis for two streets in suburban Montgomery County: Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike, the straightened version.

Virginia @ 6th SW
Some feel that certain states got short shrift. Tiny Delaware has a fractured, relatively unimportant street. However, the main reason that it is less important today is because of its strategic importance as a transportation corridor. To the north, Amtrak, MARC, and Metro's Red Line trains use Delaware Avenue to enter the L'Enfant City. Similarly, Maryland and Virginia Avenues in Southwest and Southeast now have above-grade railway embankments carrying trains along streets intended to be grand public avenues.

But street-naming doesn't have anything to do with importance to the Revolution or the prestige of any one state, at least not directly. State names were assigned to avenues based on their geographic location within the United States.

For that reason, one found Georgia Avenue in the southernmost portion of the city. Running from what is now Fort McNair across the southern side of Capitol Hill, we know it today as Potomac Avenue. Near the northern edge of the city, the avenue named after the then-northernmost state, New Hampshire, passed through Washington and Dupont Circles, just as it does today.

Vermont joined the union in 1791 as the fourteenth state, while Kentucky joined in 1792. It was during these years that Washington was being laid out. For that reason, they both received places within the system. Tennessee gained statehood in 1796, and its avenue became the first glaring error. After all, Tennessee forms the southern boundary of Kentucky, yet Kentucky Avenue lies entirely south of Tennessee Avenue.

By the time Congress first met here in 1800, there were three diagonal avenues left to be named. Ohio and Indiana fit into the system well enough, but Louisiana was sorely out of place.

With the first nineteen states represented in the city, Washington ran out of avenues. Maps from the 1800s available on the Library of Congress' website show that Maine and Missouri had short avenues within the bounds of the Mall, but it is unclear exactly how all the new states were represented as they came on board.

In 1890, Boundary Street was renamed after the twenty-seventh state, Florida. Despite being farther south than any other state (it would remain so until 1959), it got the street forming the northern boundary of the city.

Yet by the time the twentieth century got going, Washington was expanding into the hills and dales above the Fall Line. As the street grid expanded, new avenues were added, and old ones obliterated. Around 1914, the citizens of Brightwood managed to get Brightwood Avenue renamed after Georgia. They had hoped to curry favor with senator Augustus Bacon, but he promptly died, and never had a chance to affect the fortunes of these suburban pioneers. The construction of the Federal Triangle complex in the 1930s eliminated Ohio's avenue and shortened what had been Louisiana Avenue. Louisiana's name itself had moved a few blocks east to a new street constructed as part of the changes brought by Union Station and Columbus Circle in 1907.

Today, one can still see some geographic order to the state-named avenues. However, much of that is due to the age of certain regions. After all, New England hasn't had a new state since number twenty-three, Maine, joined in 1820. For the most part, states on the East Coast can be found downtown. Alaska Avenue is the northernmost avenue (in its entirety). Mississippi, which is at least in the south, is the southernmost state-named avenue. But the similarities largely end there.

This post originally ran in 2009, but since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it again!


These Metro stations’ names might have been very different

Metro's Medical Center station was almost called "Pooks Hill," and Navy Yard could have been "Weapons Plant." This 1967 map shows some of the amusing names that WMATA considered for a number of Metro stations.

Map from WMATA.

Aside from Medical Center and Navy Yard having different names, you'll notice that Pentagon City is named Virginia Highlands and Federal Center SW is named Voice of America.

The names are crisper and more creative than the awkward over-hyphenization that is so common in today's system. Originally operating under a 15 character limit, Woodley Park - Zoo / Adams Morgan is shown more elegantly as Zoological Park (you can see where this one appears on the little map in the top left below), and Gallery Place - Chinatown is named Fine Arts (because of the Portrait Gallery).

Map from WMATA.

In 2010, Matt Johnson wrote about "namesprawl," the "result of the idea that station names have to reflect absolutely everything remotely close by. This is generally done to encourage people to ride transit to these venues."

This map was included in a pamphlet that outlined the congressionally approved "basic system." It's surprising to think that a name like Weapons Plant made it through the committee process unscathed.

It's also amusing to see the proposal's high minded promise that "SERVICE WILL BE FREQUENT: Air conditioned trains will run every two minutes at peak hours."

An expanded version of this article appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.


VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.

VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.

Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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