Do you find the Metrobus maps very confusing? There’s hope. WMATA has created new bus maps that emphasize key routes and show a more stylized design, like the Metrorail map does.

Portion of the new bus map around DC’s Mid-City area. Images from WMATA. Click for full version (large PDF).

The current bus map shows every route with the same weight line, whether it’s a rush hour-only route that only runs twice a day, a bus that comes every 30 minutes, or one of the highest-frequency lines in the system.

WMATA has responded to rider feedback and suggestions from bloggers and created a new set of maps. Today, they posted draft versions of these maps to get input. They’ll collect feedback until early October, then go back and make changes in the hope of releasing the maps officially in December.

These maps emphasize the most important and high-frequency bus lines with large, red, very visible lines. Other buses are get narrow lines in other colors. In addition, the route lines don’t hew precisely to geography. Instead, routes follow straight lines and illustrated curves in the stylized form of most subway maps. The result is still fairly close to geographically accurate, but the simpler routes make reading the maps easier.

When a major trunk bus line splits into several individual lines, the thick red line divides into a number of thin red lines. For example, the S buses split up from Alaska Avenue to Silver Spring, as do the Q buses west of Rockville, or the H buses west of Rock Creek Park.

The big red lines generally correspond with the most frequent lines, but WMATA didn’t use a single frequency threshold to decide which ones qualify. In DC, most of the routes with thick red lines have service at least every 15 minutes, but there are so few 15-minute all-day services outside of DC that the map wouldn’t have many red lines there. According to head bus planner Jim Hamre, WMATA primarily looked at the line’s ridership and its span of service, such as how many days per week the line runs and how many hours per day.

You can click on each of the small versions of the maps here to access the large PDFs. On the DC map, an insert will show the downtown area, but WMATA has not finished creating that yet.

District of Columbia


Montgomery County

Prince George’s County

Many features are a big step forward

Good maps have a visual hierarchy. If you look at them from a distance, you can see the most important features and information. As you look closer, more details come into focus.

Look at the old and new DC bus maps at a small size below. What can you see?

The only hierarchy in the old map involved the jurisdiction borders, water, Metrorail lines, maybe parks, and the different color for downtown. The first 3 are important elements to have at the top of a visual hierarchy, but they don’t provide any information about the bus service. Looking at this map, you basically learn nothing about buses, except maybe the general density of lines (which isn’t that useful).

On the new map, jurisdiction boundaries, water, and parks are still very visible. In addition, a number of bus lines “pop.” In DC, you can see the major trunk routes, like the S buses on 16th, the 30s on Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the 90s going around downtown.

People who don’t already ride the bus regularly need to know which routes will be the most likely to serve them conveniently. On the old map the rider might see 5, 10, or 20 different routes that could work, but has to cross-check each with the schedule to see which actually run at the time and which run more often. This map helps simplify that. If there’s a big red line bus going where you want, take that. If not, take one of the others.

People who look at the bus map also pick up general knowledge about the buses they can use in the future. Maybe someone looks at the map and sees that there is a major bus route between Woodley Park and U Street. Sometime later, when they need to make that exact trip, they’ll remember that bus exists.

Road maps have long worked that way. Every road does not appear the same. Instead, freeways appear most visibly, then major arterials, minor arterials and local streets. Interactive maps like Google Maps even automatically elide the smaller local streets at more distant zoom levels. The hierarchy of buses on this map plays the same role.

A few changes can make them even better

Buses from other agencies besides WMATA don’t get thick lines, even if they offer frequent service. The Circulator gets a thin orange line on the DC map, but its 10-plus-minute headways make it as frequent as many major Metrobus routes. It shouldn’t lose out on prominent billing on the map just because a different agency operates it. Same for the King Street trolley.

Metro could set a standard for such lines and only include those that meet that standard. Maybe when these lines share part of a route with a major Metrobus, they could merge into one thick line, just like multiple Metrobuses do, or these could be thick lines in a different, perhaps somewhat lighter color.

Likewise, while there’s a nice hierarchy of routes in many places, there’s almost no hierarchy in Reston, Centreville, Springfield, Gaithersburg, or Germantown, where there are a lot of Fairfax Connector and Ride On routes. That makes individual routes difficult to distinguish in those areas. Are some of those lines much more significant and frequent than others? If so, it would help riders to see those more prominently, even if they aren’t as prominent as a Metrobus thick red line.

Here are some additional smaller design suggestions:

  • When lines terminate in the downtown area, they peter out into arrows approaching downtown. But lines that continue through downtown have the general route path on the full city map. It would help to show some general paths for all of the lines, or at least the thick red ones.It makes sense to have a call-out for downtown, because the lines are very densely packed and it wouldn’t be possible to show the actual routes they all take. However, that doesn’t mean the larger map can’t have some information so that not every rider has to switch back and forth between the call-out and the larger map. Even if it’s just for the major routes, it would be very helpful to see that the 42 goes to Metro Center, just like the map already shows the 30s continuing through downtown.
  • The Green Line and 70 buses do a strange do-si-do between Mt. Vernon Sq. and Shaw. Why? Both are actually just continuing straight on 7th Street. It seems that the Green Line could stay to the right of the line for the buses, and cross over where the line turns west toward U Street.
  • Some outer Metrorail lines are very straight, while others appear very wiggly, regardless of the reality. The western Red Line in Montgomery County appears on these maps to be due north-south and then change to due northwest-southeast at Grosvenor. In fact, it makes more of a gradual turn along the whole route.On the flip side, the Blue and Yellow Lines in Alexandria, and the Orange Line in Arlington, wiggle far more than in reality. Around Braddock Road, it goes from south-southwest to due south and then to southwest. Same at King Street and Huntington. The real tracks don’t curve so sharply, and this creates a lot of unnecessary visual clutter.I’d go with straighter Metrorail lines over wigglier ones. The frequent curves make the map look very busy. People don’t need to know whether a Metrorail line has changed its angle slightly, since you don’t get on and off Metrorail lines outside stations anyway. Best to make them straighter and help the rider pay more attention to the bus route turns which they might actually need to know about.
  • The 9S is missing from Crystal City. It’s actually one of the most frequent routes, though it also has a shorter span of service, making it potentially not quite eligible for a thick red line. It’s slated to turn into a BRT line next year, so it’s definitely important.
  • The DASH bus color seems too similar to the red color of the major routes, at least on my monitor. The DASH routes blend with major Metrobus routes more than, say, the Fairfax Connector in gold. A lighter pink would work better.

Overall, this is a visually stunning set of maps. If WMATA finalizes and releases them, they will help riders better understand the bus network, and frankly also just make the bus network look a lot more sexy than the current maps do.

Give WMATA your feedback in the comments, and let’s help them make these maps the best they can be.

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Tagged: buses, maps, wmata

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.