Transit agencies must influence how their transit maps are displayed online. By relinquishing the design and mapping to tech companies, they lose out on the opportunity to communicate effectively with their customers.

The evolution of the London Underground transit map tells us something about importance of effective design when communicating complex geospatial information. As the Underground network grew rapidly in the early 20th century it became apparent that plotting geographically accurate maps would be extremely cumbersome. It was not until 1931 when an engineer at the Underground developed a map design that originated the modern transit maps we see all over the world today. By straitening the lines and orienting them in either a horizontal or 45-degree angle, and normalizing the geographic distance between stops, he simplified an unwieldy and complex network and made it more intuitive. The design of transit maps hasn’t changed much since then but the treatment of online and interactive transit maps has much room for improvement.

The progression of hard copy transit maps to online versions was as simple as offering them in downloadable format, usually pdf files. Although reliable and accessible, pdf maps have their limitations. They’re difficult to navigate, lack user interaction and are hopeless when it comes to mobile viewing. More recently transit agencies have encouraged customers to use services like Google Maps, Apple Maps or Transit App and, although these systems excel in trip planning and user experience, they hamstring agencies in other aspects. For example, proposed route changes, new stations or new routes are not visible in Google Maps until after they are implemented. As a result, transit agencies must forgo the interactive online user experience and instead communicate system changes using old school pdf, print or display boards.

Digital transit map design is a relatively new field for transit agencies and tech companies alike. It was just in 2016 that Google and Apple released online transit system maps to accompany their mapping products and apps. Then, Transit App, a start up from Montreal, proudly released its own version touting it as the prettiest auto generated transit map out there. Transit agencies often defer the work of creating digital transit maps to the to big tech players if at all. Why commit precious limited resources to developing our own online maps when Google Maps has us covered?

The design of transit maps should be about expressing a local interpretation of mobility. The map design for Melbourne will differ from Mumbai which will differ from Stuttgart. The same should apply to online transit maps. Ultimately, products created by Google Maps, Transit App and the like are intended as one size fits all solutions for transit system around the world. They may not be the best solution when communicating to customers the characteristics of a particular transit system. Transit agencies must take control of the digital realm of their transit maps. By relinquishing this task to tech companies and their general purpose transit mapping design, they lose out on the opportunity to communicate effectively with their customers.