Transit Maps of the World

This gorgeous book — I might even call it stunning — must have a rather limited audience. Although I’m tempted to add it to my list of favorite books (see my profile in this blog), I have to admit that it will appeal strongly only to readers who are fascinated both by cartography and by railroads, and mostly to those whose railroad interests are focused on urban transit. I am a member of that small band.

The full title of the book is Transit Maps of the World: The World’s First Collection of Every Urban Train Map on Earth. Wow! Author Mark Ovenden and editor Mike Ashworth have done an amazing job of compiling the comprehensive collection described in the subtitle. The frontispiece promises beautiful cartography within, and the book delivers on the promise. (But there is one small glitch. What the frontispiece shows is a stylized map that at first glance looks like the London Underground, but a second glance shows that the “stations” are really cities. These are all the cities represented by maps in the book, and they’re linked together by fanciful subway lines. The commentary says this:

This captivating diagrammatic view of the cities included in this book is in the style of Harry Beck’s classic London Underground diagram. It was conceived by the author and executed at LS London by Alan Foale, who is responsible for updating the London diagram. It is also available as a full-size wall poster from London’s Transport Museum shop or online.

But, alas, I searched through the London [no “’s”] Transport Museum site to no avail.)

Anyway, among the treats awaiting the specialized reader are beautiful contemporary maps from hundreds of cities, historical maps for many of them, great photographs of stations and transit vehicles, and crisp explanatory text. Among the most attractive maps are those of obvious cities (e.g. London, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Montreal), those of less obvious cities (e.g. Madrid, Budapest, Barcelona, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Osaka), and those of thoroughly unobvious cities (e.g. Bucharest, Kiev, Prague, Cairo, Stuttgart). The blurb from The Guardian points out that the explanatory text provides a lot of background on the history of mass transit and remarks that this book is “the ideal gift for the most challenging relative.” Well, I suppose…as long as your most challenging relative is an urban-transit-and-cartography enthusiast.

Unfortunately a few of the maps did not scan well and are decidedly fuzzy. If they were printed in a larger size they might have been easier to read, but then I suppose the fuzziness would have been more obvious.

Finally, as I observed in a much earlier post (two and a half years ago in fact), my interests in cartography and model railroading share something with my interests in certain parts of mathematics: representation. Although Transit Maps of the World doesn’t deal with model railroading per se, the two topics are deeply intertwingled for those of us who model urban transit. And transit maps are especially interesting for math teachers and mathematicians, not because they are scale model of reality (similar, as we say in geometry) but precisely because they are not scale models. Riders almost always want a map to be topographically correct, but they don’t want it to be made to scale. Indeed a scale map of an urban transit system would be nearly impossible to use: either it would be much too tightly crammed together in the downtown area, or the entire map would need to be much too big. Applied geometry isn’t as simple as they taught you back in ninth grade (or tenth grade, if you’re above a certain age).

Categories: Books, Model Railroading