San Francisco transit maps

February 17, 2008

Most cities go to a tremendous amount of trouble and expense to figure out how to best serve the people with a public transit system that is both comprehensive and comprehensible. New York, London, Paris, Chicago… look at maps of their public transportation systems, and a clear picture emerges of easy routes between the popular parts of the cities in question. For any of these cities, you could print a credit-card sized map that would let visitors get around within a half mile of any point they’d be likely to want to visit.

Look at a map of San Francisco’s public transportation system, on the other hand, and… oh guess what, you can’t even really see the whole thing on one page because there are 4 different major providers (not including cablecars, ferries, and long-distance transport). And the four providers never meet in a single point, unlike the carefully planned nexuses such as the one underneath New York’s 42nd Street. And there is hardly a single route that is even remotely visually comprehensible to a normal person.

The transit map is notoriously unparseable, a jumbled mass of spaghetti with routes every block in the downtown area but only a few lines going to some of the most popular entertainment districts in the city. Take one of the most straightforward routes, the MUNI 38X bus aka “Geary Express”. For the entirety of its route through downtown San Francisco it doesn’t run on Geary or even the next street… instead it runs on Bush (3 blocks away) in one direction and Pine (4 blocks away) in the other. Meanwhile the 38 and 38L buses run on Geary! How the heck would any visitor or casual transit rider be able to figure this out?

It’s especially incredible because San Francisco as a city seems to be so strongly united in valuing green causes, the visual display of information, and anything that reduces traffic and parking problems. Half the people I know up there are Ralph Nader-loving, Critical Mass-participating, urban planning-hobbyist designers! I generally believe that people get the government they deserve, but it seems so incongruous to me that San Francisco ended up with such a horrible public transit system.