Book Review: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

“I’m going to snuggle in bed and read the geekiest book ever written, ” I proclaimed and went off to read Transit Maps of the World (2007) by Mark Ovenden. “That is a geeky book,” my wife confirmed. But it’s a book so wonderfully geeky that it goes all the way around to being cool again.

As the title implies this is a book of maps from transit systems around the world, not being too picky about a strict definition for urban transit thankfully.  The book approaches maps of metro systems from an historic and design perspective.  The book is divided into six zones with the older and larger systems getting more attention in the early zones, with less detail on the smaller and newer systems (although amazingly some of the systems in Asia that are of recent vintage are growing in leaps and bounds).

Ovenden appreciates the simplicity of a diagramatic map that eschews topography, where the lines branch out at 45 degree angles, the stations are marked with simple white circles and bulls-eyes for transfer stops, and the stations are clearly labeled in a unique font where the words do not cross the lines.  The book illustrates that most metro maps in the world are variations on these simple design themes that originated with Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground.  The major exception is the New York MTA map which is geographically based, and I think appropriately so due to NYC’s unique topography, although here I disagree with the author (I also found an interesting topographically-correct map of Boston’s MBTA system at a website called Radical Cartogaphry).

What I like about this book most is the author’s delight in the maps and the maps and the transit systems they represent.  There’s really a lot of positive commentary in this book and joy in public transit.  Even the MBTA, much-maligned by Bostonians, comes off sounding pretty good.  He even includes this classic, hand-drawn map of the old Boston MTA system where the elevated tracks are rendered in 3-D.

Here are a list of transit-related websites suggested by the book, plus one that makes up maps for Boston’s future that I’ve been a fan of for some time.  I think my fellow transit geeks can waste away many an hour here.

Transit maps of the world / Mark Ovenden ; Mike Ashworth, editor.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2007.
ISBN: 9780143112655
Description: 144 p. : col. maps ; 24 cm.

One thought on “Book Review: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

  1. One map I find interesting from a design point of view that did not make it into the book (mainly because there are no trains in this transit system) is the ACTV waterbus map of Venice. A bunch of colorful lines going around gray blobs that represent the islands. How is that for abstract?

    Also forgot that the book briefly mentions the Wuppertal Schwebahn in Germany, the world’s first suspended monorail used for urban transit. I kind of wish that Boston would build a suspended monorail or an aerial tramway, just because that would be cool.


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