Transit maps hold a vital position in the visual culture of the places they represent: they often frame a visitor's introduction to a new city and are the focus of the weary commuter's stare day after day, year after year. A transit map provides a set of instructions for how to traverse a city. It influences behavior, prescribing our movements by guiding the paths we take and in so doing, has the power to actually shape a city. A transit system's existence is objective, because it is material: but a transit system's map — whether it is geographically or geometrically motivated — is subjective. It interprets a transit system according to the perspective of its designer. Harry Beck, an electrical draftsman, drew a map that looked like a circuit diagram. The hand that draws the map is making innumerable choices and solving innumerable problems. Some are aesthetic, such as what colors to use, while others are tactical — how to treat the convergence of multiple lines in a congested area, for example.
Detail of the old BART map
The new BART map is certainly easier to read. Some well-trained designer took a weed wacker to the typography, and he or she knew that there's something essentially appealing about brightly colored lines running in parallel. When I first saw the new map, I breathed a Modernist's sigh of relief. As a graphic designer, I couldn't have abided my newly adopted city using the old map. It was embarrassingly messy, almost disgusting, the way yellow slithers up toward Pittsburg/Bay Point after wriggling between and under red and orange. Like a child drawing, the old BART map could take you on a flight of fancy, but wouldn't get you to and from work.
If I consider the old BART map in the context of the visual culture of the San Francisco Bay Area, I am no longer certain of its inferiority. Historically, two of the major touchstones of graphic art in the Bay Area are psychedelic poster art and Emigre
magazine and type foundry. The swirling hand lettering of the "Cosmic '60s" concert posters of Victor Moscoso
and Zuzana Licko
's experimental typefaces like Citizen
and Base 12
challenged accepted norms and marked the Bay Area as a safe space for graphic play. Today, widespread mural art, graffiti, and campy Victoriana ensure that San Francisco's built environment is one of America's most colorful, and most DIY urban destinations. A sense of visual whimsy extends to the Muni
, San Francisco's light rail and bus system and BART's transit cousin. Muni's logo, designed by Walter Landor
in the 1970s, is informally known as "the worm" and borrows directly from 1960s poster art. Muni's sunny color palette and knocked-out lower case typography reads as retro-unhip-hip enough to feature in The New Ugly
. The old BART map's visual language — snaking, hand-drawn lines, typographic naïveté — begins to make sense.
Victor Moscoso's Flower Pot and San Francisco Victorians, photo by Kristin Marie Enns-Kavanagh
Walter Landor's Muni logo
Ultimately, how a transit map looks communicates information about the people who designed it, the people for whom it was designed, and the place it represents. Certain transit maps have come to symbolize the very spirit and character of a place. In Metro Maps of the World
, author Mark Ovenden claims it "difficult to imagine an image more ingrained into the very psyche of a population" than the London Underground
map. Ovenden also maligns the "slavish topographic accuracy" of the old BART map. Yet loyalty to topography is what gave the old map its unique visual qualities. Besides, the new BART map engages slavish geometric inaccuracy. The BART system, with five lines and forty-three stations, is simple. The new map feels inauthentic. Lines have been straightened for straightness's sake, not to solve design problems. The BART map gained legibility but lost a rare hectic energy. Now that the old map is nearly gone, I realize how wonderful it has been to be confronted by a poetic, painterly map, by a map that makes me uncomfortable.