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Trying to build a better BART map

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Turns out it’s harder than you think

The latest episode of the BART podcast (yes, BART has a podcast) examines the eccentricities of the instantly recognizable transit system’s systemwide map, along with the map’s key designer Bart Wright. (And yes, that’s his real name.)

Both Wright and the BART podcast wax fondly about the map, which has changed only a handful of times over the decades.

“They become a brand or an icon on their own,” Wright said of transit maps like BART’s.

But critics on Twitter weren’t so nostalgic.

“This map is not one of the most iconic transit maps in the world. It’s confusing to many people and needs a complete redesign,” one person complained.

“Station names are extremely long and incoherent,” another argued, adding, “Some have slashes while others don’t, some have cross streets and others have city names. Why is it 16th St Mission but 12th St/Oakland? North Berkeley but no South Berkeley?”

In truth, these are good points; there’s no consistency to the station names on BART. Many don’t even bother to include the most important piece of information: what city they’re in.

A rider new to the Bay Area has no way to tell that stations like Rockridge, MacArthur, Fruitvale, and Lake Merritt are all in Oakland. Or that Ashby is in Berkeley. And so on.

Some stations are even named after cities they’re not even in. Names like Dublin/Pleasanton indicate that the stop is close to two different communities, but this is not consistent, as El Cerrito Plaza is not called El Cerrito/Albany and Warm Springs Station is not called Fremont/Milpitas, even though those cities are within walking distance of the stop.

Sometimes stations are named after nearby landmarks, like Coliseum Station or Lake Merritt. But Embarcadero Station is not named “Ferry Building Station,” and Downtown Berkeley is not “UC Berkeley Station”—even though those would arguably be helpful designations.

But inventing a better system is no easy task. For simplicity’s sake, we decided to try creating a new map with uniformity of station names and transparency about city locations.

In this design, a station should always be named after the city in which it is found. For cities with more than one station, the map differentiates each with the nearby cross streets, at least one of which should be the street listed in the station’s formal address.

And to minimize potential confusion, stations formerly named after two cities should default to whichever city the station is located in.

This seems simple on paper, but in practice a few weird things happen:

  • Renaming the airport stations, SFO and OAK, after their cities and cross streets is tremendously unhelpful; it obscures the main destination riders would want to know about with those stops, and street addresses aren’t very useful ways of getting to or around most airports. So they pretty much stay as-is.
  • The current Dublin/Pleasanton Station lies smack dab in the city of Dublin, and West Dublin/Pleasanton Station sits in Pleasanton. So these are rechristened Dublin Station and Pleasanton Station, respectively.
  • The current Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre Station is not, in fact, in either Pleasant Hill or Contra Costa Centre. It’s actually located in Walnut Creek, so here it becomes a second Walnut Creek Station.
  • Similarly, the North Concord/Martinez Station is not in Martinez, and there is no South Concord Station. Instead, it becomes a second Concord Station.
  • Finally, some of the new station names are just not that satisfying. “Oakland (Madison/8th)” is less memorable than “Lake Merritt” and it obscures the neighborhood identity, while the former Coliseum Station is now “Oakland (San Leandro/Hegenberger)” but is situated next to San Leandro Station, which could become a point of confusion.

It seems that switching tracks is never without its bumps and jolts. Still, while this map is far from perfect, there’s something to be said for consistency, and at least there’s no mysteries about it.

This is a work in progress, so what changes do you think would make the BART map easier to decipher? Different station names, a different layout, different colors—or do you think it’s not worth rocking the current boat?

Let us know in the comments what change you’d like to see.