Starts & Stops

MBTA map-making contest garners 17,000 votes

One of the six maps entered into the contest.
One of the six maps entered into the contest.MBTA

If you voted in the MBTA’s map re-design competition, congratulations! You were one of 17,000 people to cast a ballot to select a redesigned version of Massachusetts’ most beloved map.

The contest, which concluded on Friday, featured six different versions of a re-designed T map from local graphic designers and cartographers, ranging from subtle modifications of the current map to full-blown overhauls.

Of course, T officials organizing the contest have made no promises that any of the maps will replace our old standard.

Still, the reimagined subway system renderings say a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the current T map — and the proclivities of the thousands of people who use it every day.


I called up a local cartographer, a regular user of the T. He didn’t want to be named — the map-making world is small, it seems — but offered thoughts on the cartograms and what each brought to the table.

His main conclusion: Most of the designs demonstrated innovative ideas, but were way too flashy or offbeat to ever become the T’s new map.

“Bostonians, I think, are fairly traditional on a lot of things,” he said. For most of the maps, “they might consider it too jarring, especially when it comes to people who’ve ridden the T for years. I’m wondering how much the T would want to depart from that look after all these years.”

But there’s always a chance: “On the other hand, maybe we’ll decide to go for a new look, to try something new,” he said

The contest finalists all took different approaches to what the cartographer called the biggest challenge facing any rendering of the MBTA system map: Fitting the five, crowded spokes of the Green Line into one neat slice of the map. Some moved the map’s legend to a different section of the map, letting the Green Line snake down into the lower left-hand corner. Others shrunk the fonts of the Green Line stations to make them appear less crowded — a controversial move, the cartographer said, because the map suggests that the trolley stops are less important than their red, blue, and orange line heavy rail counterparts.


And several of the competition finalists committed one of the cardinal sins of subway map-making: making the train lines too thin.

“The key to this map is that when you look at it from afar or up close, the thing that should stand out right away are the four main system lines,” the cartographer said. “If you’re standing 20 feet away or 50 feet away, it should be something instantly recognizable.”

Some of the maps featured other smaller, interesting features: On one, ribbon-like shadowing on the subway lines indicated when each of the trains move above or below ground. On another, a dashed line notified users when traveling the distance between two stops would typically take more than five minutes, such as the lengthy stretch between JFK/UMass and North Quincy stations.

The second map in the batch is perhaps the most discordant with what we use today. Unlike the current map, it does not consolidate subway lines that have multiple terminuses (the Red Line and the Green Line) and branch out at the point where train tracks diverge. Instead, the designer of this entry used parallel lines to indicate each of the different trains that run on the same subway line, even in the sections of the system where they all run on the same tracks.


It was an interesting approach, the cartography expert said, but there was one fatal flaw.

“It reminded me of other cities’ maps,” he said, “especially New York’s.”

Martine Powers can be reached at Martine.Powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.