Google Maps vs. Muni maps: what the bus-map makeover says about San Francisco

May 18, 2015

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When city planner Jay Primus first moved out to San Francisco’s Richmond district, he made an easy mistake: he hopped onto the 2 Clement to make his way downtown. The bust took him there, but he could’ve gotten there a lot faster if he had taken the 38L, now the 38R, one block over. But there was no indication on the Muni map that these two lines have different levels of frequency. 

“On the existing map those transit lines look exactly the same,” he says. “They have the same visual importance.”

This was over a decade ago. The experience triggered something in him. He loved thinking about maps and transit systems. Map-making technology was getting better. Making a new Muni map seemed like the perfect project: what he needed was a partner in crime. So he teamed up with David Wiggins, a professional cartographer, and started to dream up a map.

Making good maps takes a while, especially when it’s a passion project: Primus and Wiggins made this map for free, working on it when they could on top of their full-time jobs. The two men hit the books, studying transit maps from all over the world, and Muni maps from eight decades ago. They found that some of those design concepts were startlingly relevant. Take for instance, a map from the 1930’s. It “shows really clearly where transit operates,” Primus tells me. “It’s not the prettiest, but it really works.”

We flip ahead to the seventies, and I feel like I’m in a time machine. “You start to see really funny colors,” Primus says. The Bay is bright pink, Golden Gate Park is etched in orange.

When Wiggins and Primus started on  their own map, they created a system of color-coded lines of varying thickness to indicate which buses showed up more often -- a throwback to Primus’ first days in SF.

“The key difference was trying to show frequency more clearly,” says Primus. “So that at a glance you very quickly get a feel for where there's transit more often.”  

There’s a lot of thoughtful detail in the finished product, from the colors they chose, to the lower-case font they used, to the way they oriented street names to make everything easier to read. But will people use it?

Muni v. Google

To find out, I did that thing reporters often do: I lurked outside of bus stations across the city, and bugged unsuspecting riders to tell me what they thought.  I talked to tourists, longstanding locals, and recently-arrived students, who all said the same thing: they didn’t use the old map, let alone realize there was a new one.

Google Maps loomed large in most of their responses, which brought up another question. In a lot of ways, digital maps are easier to use. But they only take us exactly where we want to go. What do we lose when we don’t see the whole picture?  

Allison Arieff, the Editorial Director of SPUR, asked that question in her recently curated exhibit “Urban Cartography.” As she sees it, a map is a historical document, a snapshot of the city, and a story in the making. “There's something really integral to the city, and experiencing it, and actually creating it, and making place, by experiencing places that you might not normally get to,” she says.  She adds that maps also provide something something really, really important: context.

“If you look at that map and see what neighborhoods are being served, what neighborhoods are not being served, there's equity issues imbued within that map,” Arieff says. “And where the Muni Map goes, shows us where people go every day. How far people have to go.”

The new map, she says, “signals a commitment to public transit, and in particular public transit as a public good,” during a time in the city’s history where there are lots of different modes of transit. The private market in particular is expanding -- but those options aren’t accessible to lots of people. Muni, of course, remains public. And a Muni map that makes clear where the bus goes and how often it goes there can help guide city officials towards what they need to improve -- for everyone’s benefit.

What maps show

Jay Primus says there’s another reason to make a print map. Whether they use them or not, people seem to really like them. “Maybe it's a little bit like, are printed books relevant anymore,” he says. “I'm kind of old-school, but there's nothing like having a book in your hand.”

A lot of people I talked to on the street echoed this sentiment. One guy said that he looks at a print map after his smartphone successfully guides him somewhere, to try and discern the computer logic. Another woman reminisced about how she used to navigate with print maps during road trips with her mom. And then there’s people like my dad. He’s lived here all his life and knows how to get everywhere in astounding (sometimes excessive) detail. But when he was a kid, he would study the Muni map in every new edition of the phone book, exploring new neighborhoods from the comfort of his living room.

Map nerds like my dad can look forward to studying the new map inside bus shelters around town. As for Primus, the mapmaker? He’s looking forward to seeing how his vision of San Francisco fits into the city’s greater narrative. After all, a good map doesn't just show us what our city looks like -- it also asks us who we want to be.