I’d planned to write a post on Melbourne network maps a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t quite get around to it. I’d actually been thinking seriously about the issue for a few months prior, ever since a friend lent me Maxwell J. Roberts’ great book Underground Maps After Beck, which documents the history of network maps of the London Underground.
What amazed me about the book – aside from the detail in which the maps are reproduced and discussed – was how harsh Roberts was on Harold Hutchison’s attempts at map drawing. Now there’s no doubt that Hutchison’s maps were a big step backwards, that Beck’s removal was particularly mean-spirited and unnecessary and that London Transport made a general mess of the affair; but even Hutchison’s much maligned map is better than Melbourne’s maps today. What criticism would Roberts have for them?
In this post, I’m going to look at what I believe a good network map should convey, Melbourne’s recent experiences and finally some alternative designs.
What do we want in a network map?
Ideally, a network map should be simple and easy to read, yet convey important information about the network to an even infrequent user and be part of an integrated scheme to make the system highly navigable. If possible, the map should be readily recognisable and aesthetically pleasing, acting as an advertisement as well as a just a map (just as London’s does) – but I’d stress that this is difficult to achieve and may take decades to occur (just as it did in London).
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Melbourne rail map should look just like the London Underground map, (the latter is much more complex), but we need to be mindful of what we’re aiming for in a map and base designs on the benchmarks I mentioned above. I’m not convinced this has happened in Melbourne.
Melbourne’s experience with network maps
Over the decades and various changes of management, Melbourne’s train and tram systems have had a variety of train and tram maps. None that I’ve seen have been particularly revolutionary. But when we look at the past quarter of a century or so – it’s clear that we’ve seen basically one predominant train map style (with the exception of the privatised pre Metlink mess and some of the early loop maps) and two main tram map styles (with the aforementioned early privatisation caveat). Below you can see the 1994 and current rail maps (note that that only real change between the 1994 map and those from the mid 80s was the change of zone system) and 1981, 1994 and current tram maps.
Melbourne’s train maps have primarily shown zone structure at the expense of other features, like individual lines. While I’d argue that this almost the least important thing to show on a two zone multimodal system, at least there’s the excuse that the rail network is reasonably simple and hasn’t cried out for line by line colour coding. But with Werribee being taken out of the loop (albeit only during peak) and Eddington’s rail tunnel perhaps occurring (although I’d be surprised if it actually went ahead), this excuse is no longer going to hold.
Melbourne’s current tram network doesn’t have any such excuses. It’s complex (more than many metros) and is basically all in zone 1, so there’s really no reason to colour lines based on zones rather than where they are going. Worse still, the Met was making a much less confusing map back in the 90s. Sure it wasn’t perfect, but it acknowledged that the tram network was complex and prioritised showing where the lines went rather than what zone they were. That’s an efficient choice to make when a map can’t show every piece of relevant information – it simply has to be prioritised.
This ought not reflect poorly on the designers of the map, they were probably just given a brief to integrate it better with other public transport as part of the Metlink programme, and how they showed zones probably wasn’t something they had control over. But if we want to show zones on a network map, we should do it the way the London Underground Map does – as part of the background.
In many ways, Beck’s guiding principles should be instructive for Melbourne. Roberts summarises Beck’s design principles thus:
– Only horizontal, vertical and 45-degree lines are used.
– The centre of the map is enlarged but at the expense of the suburbs.
– A distinctive interchange symbol is used.
– Street details are not shown.
– Stations are denoted by tickmarks.
– Lines are denoted by distinctive colours.
Whilst I don’t think these ideas should necessarily be taken as gospel, they may provide some insights. My recent train and tram network maps incorporate some elements of this overarching design (although the tram map much less so). They aren’t by any means perfect, but hopefully they illustrate my point about navigability and ease of reading.
I’ve also been thinking about mapping based on service standard rather than mode, and Australian Rail Maps has a very well done Beck like rendition of Melbourne’s trains and trams on the same map. But in many ways, mode has come to say so much about service standard in Melbourne (trams = slow but frequent, trains = less frequent but faster and longer distance, buses = rubbish) that it would be hard to do differently. If I had my way and the outer reaches of routes 75 and 86 became heavier light rail, perhaps they should be shown on the rail map too – but there’s many questions about how that should be done and I don’t really have the answers. Furthermore, I don’t have any answers about how to go about a decent bus network map – I’d be interested to hear ideas on this one.
Filed under: trains, trams | 46 Comments »