A Wonderful Archive of Historic Transit Maps: Expressive Art Meets Precise Graphic Design

transit 1

Any­one who loves cities almost cer­tain­ly loves tran­sit maps: for well over a cen­tu­ry, they’ve not only played an essen­tial role in the nav­i­ga­tion of urban spaces but devel­oped into their very own dis­tinc­tive form at the inter­sec­tion of util­i­ty and aes­thet­ics. The finest exam­ples simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pos­sess the clar­i­ty and infor­ma­tion-rich­ness of the best graph­ic design and hold out promis­es of excite­ment and moder­ni­ty that require a true artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty to prop­er­ly express. None of this is lost on Cameron Booth, the Aus­tralian graph­ic design­er liv­ing in Port­land, Ore­gon who runs the site Tran­sit Maps.

Transit 2

“A well designed tran­sit map con­veys a lot of infor­ma­tion in a very small space,” writes Booth on the site’s About page. “In an instant, we learn how to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, sim­ply by fol­low­ing some coloured lines. The very best maps become sym­bols of their city, admired and loved by all.” None have become quite so sym­bol­ic as the map of the Lon­don Under­ground, the old­est sub­way sys­tem in the world, and Tran­sit Maps’ posts filed under the Lon­don Under­ground tag, such as the 1929 cut­away dia­gram of its Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus sta­tion by Ital­ian archi­tect and urban design­er Ren­zo Picas­so just above pro­vide plen­ty of good read­ing — and even bet­ter view­ing — for its many enthu­si­asts.

Transit 3

Among Amer­i­can cities, no sub­way sys­tem has a more respect­ed map than Wash­ing­ton, DC’s, the work of graph­ic design­er Lance Wyman, for whom it has remained a work in progress: he over­saw a redesign just five years ago, almost forty years after the sys­tem went into ser­vice and his orig­i­nal map made its debut. Here we have one of Wyman’s orig­i­nal work­ing sketch­es for the map straight from his note­book. “Inter­est­ing­ly, it looks like Wyman was exper­i­ment­ing with tex­tur­al treat­ments for the route lines at this time,” adds Booth, “an idea I’m ever so glad he aban­doned, because it would have looked so busy and hideous.”

Transit 4

Hav­ing seen many more tran­sit maps than most, and even hav­ing designed some of his own (includ­ing a rework­ing of the DC Metro map), Booth does­n’t hes­i­tate to point out both the virtues and the flaws of the ones he posts. He even grades them on a star rat­ing sys­tem (with, of course, cir­cu­lar Lon­don Under­ground logos sub­sti­tut­ing for actu­al stars), col­lect­ing the very best under the five-star tag. One such pas­sage with fly­ing col­ors, the 1950s York­shire coast train map at the top of the post, has Booth exclaim­ing that “they don’t make ‘em like this any more. The 1908 bird’s-eye view of Chica­go, source of the leg­end above, scores its own five stars by “minute atten­tion to detail,” down to the inclu­sion of “smoke curls from fac­to­ry chim­neys” and “almost every tree in the city’s parks.”

Transit 5

Few cities have attract­ed as much atten­tion from map­mak­ers as New York, pos­si­bly due to all its won­ders — or at least those are what IBM graph­ic design­er Nils Hansell empha­sizes in his mid-1950s map “Won­ders of New York” which, despite not look­ing far past Man­hat­tan, does include tran­sit and much else besides: Booth men­tions its depic­tion of “300-odd num­bered points of inter­est” as well as “the last ves­tiges of New York’s once-exten­sive ele­vat­ed rail­way lines.” You need quite a high-def­i­n­i­tion scan to real­ly appre­ci­ate all this, and Booth found one in the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion, which we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

Transit 6

Scroll through the pages and pages of Tran­sit Maps’ his­tor­i­cal tag, and you’ll find a wealth of fas­ci­nat­ing show­pieces of the tran­sit map­per’s art, not just from the Lon­dons and New Yorks of the world, but also from times and places like Berlin in 1931Madi­son, Wis­con­sin in 1975, and Booth’s own old home­town of Syd­ney in 1950 and new home­town of Port­land in 1978. The archive even includes tran­sit maps from unusu­al places, such as a delight­ful one print­ed on the back of a Japan­ese match­box in the 1920s, and maps for tran­sit sys­tems nev­er com­plet­ed, such as the one for the Bagh­dad Metro from the ear­ly 1980s just above. Iraq’s cap­i­tal may still await a full-ser­vice sub­way sys­tem — and much else besides — but at least its map earns top marks.

tokyo subway

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

Vin­tage Video: A New York City Sub­way Train Trav­els From 14th St. to 42nd Street (1905)

Vladimir Nabokov Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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