CINCINNATI -- In an age of GPS and trip planner apps, traditional topographic maps more and more often are found hanging as artwork than serving as navigational tools.
In the world of public transit, though -- where ridership is on the decline, not just for Cincinnati Metro but for systems all across the country -- the craft of map design is becoming more important than ever.
There's no denying the artistic value of cartography, especially when it comes to transit system maps. The internet is peppered with websites and social media accounts dedicated to the art of transit map design.
But transit maps more than most rely on smart design. That's because the best ones must communicate huge amounts of complex information in a simple, almost at-a-glance manner.
"The bus system is really confusing, and people don't know where the lines go," said Metro rider Mark Samaan of Northside. Samaan works as an associate planner with Hamilton County. In his free time, he volunteers for the Better Bus Coalition, a transit advocacy group.
Samaan spent more than 30 hours -- many over the Thanksgiving holiday -- working to see how Metro's system map could look less like a road atlas and more like a diagram.
Here's Metro's existing systemwide map:
And here's a zoom on the urban core:
"Every road in Hamilton County is on that map," Samaan said. "It shows much more than you would need to know. All it really tells you is generally where there are bus routes, and if you're someone who doesn't want to spend a lot of time looking at a map, that can be overwhelming.
"The existing Metro map is fine, but it's very cluttered."
Now consider Samaan's map, dubbed the "Better Bus Map." For now, Samaan has focused his efforts on depicting Metro's local routes only:
Rather than depicting streets and roads to scale and with directional accuracy, this map orients around points of interest like the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Cincinnati Museum Center or Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. It also points out more everyday destinations like Kroger or Walmart stores located along Metro lines.
Samaan hopes this design will trigger a would-be rider's interest in where Metro can take them. It might make fewer eyes cross, too.
It uses color to differentiate routes and line width to indicate frequency of arrival. The wider the line, the more frequent the bus service is along that route. The map uses only 45-degree and 90-degree angles in order to maintain focus on the destinations and not the routes themselves.
"The idea is to point people to where they might want to go or things people might know about," Samaan said. "It helps people orient themselves better because most people think by major points of interests and landmarks."
In other words, it simplifies and demystifies an otherwise convoluted process, Samaan said.
"The idea is to put all the information in one place," he said. "It's a very First World problem, but if people can't figure things out in 10 seconds, they lose interest. You have to make it as easy as possible."
It also makes would-be or occasional Metro riders more likely to ride more often.
"Cities that make it super, super easy, it's more likely that someone takes a casual ride now and then might ride again," Samaan said.
The "Better Bus Map" effectively does a lot of the planning and logistical work navigation technologies like Google Maps or transit apps do -- just without requiring a mobile device to do it.
"Not everyone can use these apps," Samaan said.
He has made the map printable in sizes up to 40 inches by 48 inches, and he hopes to see them start popping up at destinations around town. He also would like to see a map like this at Metro bus shelters.
"I would love to see Metro say, 'This is the kind of map we'd like to put at our shelters,'" he said. "It doesn't even have to be our map."
It can't do everything, though. The map doesn't provide details like stop location or specific arrival times and schedules. Riders still would need to consult Metro's other documents for that information.
The "Better Bus Map" is just Samaan's initial template. He imagines making specialized or themed versions in the future.
"Imagine a bus map that we put at, say, Children's Hospital, that points out all the places people might need to get to from there," he said.
The "Better Bus Map" is just the latest in the coalition's grassroots efforts to make Cincinnati Metro more user-friendly. Volunteers spent most of 2018 building and distributing small benches to bus stops without a place to sit, and the coalition was instrumental in persuading the City Council to test a rush-hour bus-only lane along Downtown's Main Street corridor.