Duck Duck Book

50 – transit maps of the world
01.1.2008, 6:20 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Transit maps of the world / Mark Ovenden.
London : Penguin Books, 2007.
[Multnomah County Library has this book on order; it has not yet been assigned a call number, but my guess is that it will be 912 — Atlases, maps, charts and plans]

I am a life-long user of public transit. I have had a driver’s license for fifteen years but I am a horrifically un-confident driver and have never owned a car; and one of my earliest memories at age three or so is of a frightening incident on a bus — the door closed on my arm (I wasn’t hurt, just really freaked out and sure I’d never see my mother again, even though she was about a foot away at the time). I don’t exactly love riding the bus or the train, but I definitely find some concrete satisfaction in it — traveling by public transportation gives me time to read and knit and think while in transit; requires that I maintain a moderate level of skill in conversing with strangers who I would never otherwise meet; and allows me to work four miles away from my house without having to drive or bike through city traffic, or brave an hour-long walk every morning and night. My view is that public transit is absolutely essential to city life, and the more effective it can be, the better the city will function. But like many features of urban life and infrastructure, public transit is composed of many complicated facets. One of these is the map that shows where the transit system will take you.

Mark Ovenden’s nearly encyclopedic collection of urban train maps takes a world-wide view, examining maps from cities on six continents. After a terse introduction detailing the history of urban rail transit systems and the maps and diagrams devised to explain them, entries on individual transit systems are arranged in several groups, according to the richness of their history in maps. The first section devotes about four pages each to some of the oldest subway systems, in Berlin, Chicago, London, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. The rail systems in each of these cities is shown in a dozen or so maps from different periods in its evolution, and in the evolution of its graphic representation. Subsequent sections are devoted to transit systems with shorter histories (or at least with fewer maps reproduced), and the book is appended with a brief section discussing other maps that use the distinctive transit map language of colored lines, usually arranged in forty-five degree angles — such as the map created by fans of the British television series Doctor Who, which shows the Time Lord’s domain in London Underground map style (page 141). The book also includes two helpful indexes (one for geography and one for subjects) and a short, unannotated bibliography.

Of course the main attraction of Transit Maps of the World is its reproductions of maps and diagrams. I found some of the older illustrations particularly charming: a 1958 map of the Moscow Metro with each stop marked by an icon of its grand station entrance (page 29); several early Chicago Transit Authority maps that have west at the top, to accommodate the annoyingly blank expanse of Lake Michigan (page 16); a 1937 map-book cover from the Paris Metro with trains heading out of a tunnel in three-point perspective atop the three-dimensional letters “METROPOLITAIN” (page 38); a stylized 1966 diagram of Barcelona’s Metro showing two subway lines and giant civic landmarks against a stark white background (page 46); and a stylized 1926 map of the (now defunct) Los Angeles Pacific Railroad in the shape of a balloon (page 9).

But some of the considerable charm of the book is more in its reproductions of graphic work than less in the histories and oddities of individual transit systems.  For example, Ovenden explains that every station in Mexico City’s Metro has its own unique emblem (the one shown on page 60 is for Zaragoza station on Line 1, and features a person on a horse) to help illiterate riders identify their destinations more easily. And, when the Berlin Wall went up between in 1961, the city’s U-Bahn (pages 12-15) was divided into two separate systems. Some West Berlin lines went underneath East Berlin, traveling through sealed-off stations, and each city developed maps showing the whole underground train system, but minimizing the graphical impact of the part on the other side of the wall.

Many of the maps are reproduced at so small a scale that their details are hard to decipher, which is unfortunate, but on the whole, Transit Maps of the World is an excellent resource. It is clearly laid out and should be useful for serious readers seeking a narrative of transit map history as well as for map junkies and people who are merely curious. The book’s cover proclaims that it is “The world’s first collection of every urban train map on earth,” which is a bit of an overstatement since many purely aboveground train systems are excluded, but readers should forgive Ovenden for this, since his is indeed the first book to consider transit maps as a group, while discussing their development both as tools for transit users and as achievements in graphic design.


3 Comments so far
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It’s always interesting to see other people’s feelings about historic maps.
They are a favorite of mine, too.

Comment by nwlimited

I make ficticious trasit maps for real cities. The cities tend to be semi-major, New England ones that I have some familiarity with, like Worcester, Springfied, and Providence. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but your book has spurred me to put more work into them and do them more frequently. Do you know of any websites/blogs etc. that ficticious maps can be submitted to?

Comment by Alexander Clark

Sorry Alexander, I have no idea! Perhaps your maps would make a good book or zine. . .

Katherine Harmon wrote a book discussing imaginary and fanciful maps, which I’ll be reviewing here at Duck Duck Book, relatively soon: You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004). She includes many widely varying examples, which make it fairly evident that creating imaginary or fictitious maps is something that lots of folks are moved to do — so I think you’re in good company!

Comment by Emily-Jane

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