Mapping Boston's T to a T

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September 11, 2013, 7:28 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) With 1.3 million daily riders, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, more commonly known as the T, is the nation’s fifth most busy transit system.

Naturally, the map meant to help visitors navigate it. “A good word for it is ‘busy,'" said Barry Snow, visiting from St. Augustine, Fla., as he looked over a map outside the Haymarket Green and Orange Line station on Congress Street. “Where do you change over from, like, Orange to Green and so forth. Like, where do I really go? What part of town am I at?’’

That confusion factor, and the way the rapid-transit map’s been gloppily overlaid over time with new Silver Line services, plus several new Fairmount Line rail stops opening in Boston this summer and the upcoming Assembly Square Orange Line station – the T’s first new subway-line stop in over 20 years – led T officials to open a contest last spring for graphic designers and cartographers to design a better, cleaner T map.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to refresh the map, but not just refresh that map, ask the public, ask our customers, how the system could be made more understandable and navigable to riders, said state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey.

Starting Monday morning, the mbta.com website began showcasing what officials decided were the six best entries to come back and allowing you to vote on which one you like best. They offer some very different representations of how to navigate the Red, Green, Blue, and Orange Lines and commuter rail and major bus lines and ferries.

“We thought any one of these could be acceptable. Let's get the public's input," Davey said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

One very interesting alternative – not among the six – is Boston designer Peter Dunn’s map showing T stops in concentric rings of what are normally five minutes’ travel time. He’s with StoneBrownDesign.com. You can see the map here.

“I wanted to see what's the T really like? How long is it going to take me to travel around?"

The map helps you visualize that, for example, while it may look close to the city, it will take you just as long to slog down Commonwealth Avenue to Boston College as it will to get to Riverside Station just off Route 128.

Dunn said he’s never considered that his should become the official T map, in part because it could create expectations for riders of guaranteed travel times for different segments – something the T will never be able to do with creaky old equipment, weather, and swelling crowds of riders over the course of a day. Also, from his perspective, it has too much white space and would be hard to decipher from the far side of a subway or trolley car. But he’s received widespread plaudits for creating a map that makes much more clear not just distance but likely travel times on the system.

What Dunn learned the hard way, and the challenge the six finalists clearly have had to struggle with, is how tough it is to make a system this complicated look pretty. Compared to the iconic Cambridge Seven Associates simplified graphic of the four transit lines from the 1960s, the map now includes major bus routes intersecting rapid transit, commuter rail lines, ferries, and federally required indicators of which stations are handicapped-accessible.

“Given the volume of information there's a huge challenge to show all that,’’ Dunn said. “I think the real challenge is deciding which information get cut, which information goes out.’’

As of Wednesday morning, T officials said, more than 11,000 people had registered their opinion of which of the six maps should be the new T map. Voting is open through September 20. Davey said it is not guaranteed, but likely, if one of the maps clearly has the most support, with tweaks it may become the next T map and begin appearing next year.

With videographer Scott Wholley.

Tags: Peter Howe, Boston, the T, Massachusetts Bay Tranportation Authority, graphic design, cartography
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