989 words on Books
I had read about the volume Transit Maps of the World a few times on the internet in the past years and seeing it yet again over at Dave’s recently finally cracked me, particularly as I still had some book store gift vouchers to spend. As the title promises, the book’s idea is straight from the intersection of the public transport and graphics geekery heavens: maps of public transport systems around the world.
Each of those maps has to find the sweet spot between precisely representing the routes and creating an easily understandable diagram. And depending on the location of such a map greater focus may be given to either of those: On a street map at the exit of an underground station you’ll want to give truthful locations of everything while, on the other extreme, inside a train or on platforms served by just a single line you’ll probably be happier with a single straight line that just gives people information about their position along that line.
The maps they are using in the London Underground are commonly taken as examples for good and - back in the days - revolutionary diagrams. With their simple in train diagrams, the precise maps at the exists and the surprisingly distorted city-wide route diagram which not only distorts distances in the suburbs but also straightens out lines considerably and even manipulates the relative positions of the stations to fit them in an easily understandable and legible diagram. The ideas used there can be found in many other public transport diagrams these days.
Many examples for those can be found in the book, which is split in several chapters that put the large public transport systems for which they had a lot of maps to also illustrate the historical development at the front and things become ‘more efficient’ towards the back where newer systems with less sources are mentioned. To a certain degree these differences seem a bit arbitrary.
Most of the larger examples are accompanied by what I’d call ‘obnoxious commentary’ which often, but not really consistently elaborates on the past and future of the public transport system at hand as well, even when that seems fairly irrelevant to the topic of its maps. According to the commenary 45 degree angles are ‘signature’ or ‘classical’; straight lines and distortion for geometry over reality are good; Asian networks usually
resemble a character of the […] alphabet; it’s worth describing things like
black circles with white bull’s eyes over and over again for the symbols used for stations or interchanges.
In total I found the text rather repetitive and not particularly helpful. At the same time I could have easily imagined additions of text to make the book much better. While some general information about the length of the route network and the city’s size is provided for each system, what about some internet references? Either a web site to go with the book providing links to the site of all systems or just the address of their sites printed somewhere along with the maps. That would make further investigation easier. Less trivially, but more interestingly, I would have appreciated more detailed ‘general’ chapters discussing the stratgies in diagram-making: How simplified should diagrams be? How does that depend on the size of the city and the complexity of the system? How many maps are rotated from the usual north=up direction and why? Which symbols are used for stations and/or interchanges? What’s the benefit of extra symbols for interchanges? Are key parts of the city (rivers, parks, buildings) visible on the map? Each of those could be cross referenced to the examples that come later. At least I would find that interesting. Add some tables for quick lookups at the back and I might be drooling.
Might because apart from the text, which is easy to ignore, there’s another problem with the book. At least the edition I have (Penguin, 2007, Printed in Mexico) is very poorly printed. Most of the maps simply don’t appear crisp and clearly. While I appreciate that shrinking graphics can be tricky, I have also done this much better. And in a book focusing on a graphical topic and printing severely shrunk diagrams I expect that ‘better’. In a few places (photos of ancient prints) there might be an apology for the quality, but in most places it seems to be due to careless scaling and poorly aligned colour screens in printing. The fact that the book’s text seems to be printed in a colour slightly lighter than black without using a matching spot colour gives a fuzzy pixelly feeling even to the main text. And making a bit of effort in that direction - say to ensure that black lines in diagrams will be printed with solid black rather than rasterised would certainly make tiny text more legible. If that raised the price of printing it would certainly have been worth is as - huh - it would enable you to actually read the diagrams which are the book’s main content.
Of the diagrams displayed in the book, I already used the ones in Berlin (luckily the book doesn’t discuss general usefulness of public transport graphics as Berlin is pretty crap in that respect - they may have a diagram, but they often prefer to not use them to help people…), London, New York, Paris, Hamburg, Lisbon, München, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Oslo, Prague, Vienna, Köln-Bonn, Frankfurt, Hannover, Rhein-Ruhr (now that’s a huge system because it includes several cities - quite a challenge), Stuttgart, Bratislava, [I’d love to say Genoa but I only used a bus there and they ‘system’ with a handful of stops on a single line is a bit trivial diagram-wise,] and San Diego. Not that many, really. Of course I also used other public transport systems, but apparently they didn’t qualify for the book.
I don’t think that the maps were ever intended to actually be in any way useful… it’s just to take a look at the overall pattern of the system and the way it’s presented to the public. In that respect, I absolutely love this book. I do wish that many of the more historic and comprehensive systems would have been given more space… even if it meant losing the throw-away write-ups of tiny systems in the back… just to get the extra information they prime you for.
How′s the print quality of your copy? The partially poor image quality, bad colour usage and frequent poor scalaing are probably the same but the colours could be better aligned.
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