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Brilliant San Francisco bike map looks like a subway map

“Spider maps” boil the city down to its basic elements for quick and easy cycling reference

Sometimes a design problem has been around for so long that people stop noticing it’s a problem at all.

Take bike maps, like the kind distributed by the city or the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition; they’re very useful, but upon examination, a touch cluttered.

Compare them to a few so-called “spider maps” of city bicycle routes, as designed by Brooklyn’s Michael Graham, a cycling enthusiast who realized that his local bike maps had a whole lot of lines on them, but really only needed one: the line for the route.

(The term “spider map” sometimes refers to the abstracted rail line maps that Graham modeled his bike maps on, like this one familiar to Muni light rail riders. Graham’s map site references the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web for the term.)

Graham took it upon himself to redesign bicycle maps for several U.S. cities, as he recently explained to CityLab. In addition a San Francisco map, he created ones for Denver, London, and D.C.

Not being from the Bay Area, Graham makes a few mistakes (terms like “Knob Hill” or “Kirham Street,” for example), but his designs are bold, clear, and memorable; basically, the Apple Store of bike maps.

Michael Graham

The version that removes the city outline altogether recalls diagrams of molecule chains.

The bird’s-eye-view map highlights only a few major avenues that are commonly known, but a third entry (labeled “Potrero Hill”) provides a bit more nuanced of a web, color coded to each crucial street, from the Embarcadero to the Great Highway.

Of course, the twists and hills that give San Francisco streets their signature style don’t survive translation in this clean-cut form. But there’s appeal in seeing the map boiled down to their most fundamental elements.

Graham tells Curbed SF he’s still tinkering with how to balance the aesthetics of his spider maps with their utility. “People point out that my maps treat all paths as homogeneous, but there’s a wide range” of types of bike paths.

“There’s a trade-off between simplicity and detail, between geometry and fidelity,” he says. “This is another tool for cyclists rather than a replacement of existing maps.”

Part of Graham’s pleasingly straightforward version of San Francisco streets.