DDOT Bus Map Redesign

A revised bus map for DDOT bus services in the City of Detroit. This is an early draft with many missing details, such as street labels, the downtown inset, final key and branding, additional location labels, consistent station icon designs, etc.

DRAFT – June 2017

Why redesign a bus map? Bus maps are, generally speaking, the unloved stepchildren of the transit maps world. When people talk about a “beautiful transit map,” they are almost invariable talking about a rail rapid transit map. And yet, buses carry the vast majority of transit users in the United States on any given day. In Los Angeles, Metro buses account for over 70% of all trips despite the construction of 100+ miles of new subway and light rail. In Chicago, all-time records for El ridership have only pulled rail close to even: CTA buses still carry 52% of all riders. New York, with its vast subway network, is an exception: subway ridership is more than double bus ridership. Nonetheless, MTA buses still carry about 2.4 million people per day. And all of the above examples are unfair comparisons, because they exclude the numerous suburban bus operators that form part of the overall network, while including the entire rapid transit system.

In the past, most bus maps laid out all available lines with equal visual weight. In major cities, which may have upwards of one hundred routes, the result can be a confusing spaghetti tangle that’s impossible to quickly decipher. Of course, this is mostly because large bus networks simply present difficult design problems. They must communicate a vast volume of route information, but the close relationship between bus routes and street-level geography means that the network cannot easily be abstracted into a diagram while remaining useful to riders. Route differentiation, geographic accuracy, overall clarity, and aesthetics present competing priorities.

Recently, though, a new trend of improved bus maps has begun to emerge. One is WMATA’s new set of bus system maps for the Washington region. The WMATA maps highlight information which is critical to bus users but not typically important for rapid transit users: the frequency of the service. As Jarrett Walker puts it, “frequency is freedom.” Telling users which buses come only occasionally and which come every 10 or 15 minutes allows users to quickly determine where they can easily travel within the city. On the WMATA map, these frequent routes are highlighted in thick, red lines that immediately draw the eye, while more subdued thick orange and blue lines highlight more specialized express and circulator routes. Local routes, which may be served as little as once an hour, fade to the background as thin lines.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere on this site, transit maps also visualize a region. The limited stations and routes of a rapid transit map immediately highlight a city’s nodes of interest, major corridors, and the main connections between them. When looking at a rapid transit map in an unfamiliar city, we can usually assume that at least the core stations or major interchanges represent important, highly-trafficked places.(1) A diagram’s overall layout also gives a general sense of the city’s form. For example, the large bundle of curves flowing from lower Manhattan into Brooklyn speaks to the centrality of those two boroughs within New York, while the irregular net of the Paris Metro map directly reflects the city’s above-ground form. Chicago’s El map would show the lakefront even if the lake were eliminated from the map, and the sacred geometry of Beijing’s rectilinear street layout shows up in literal squares bisected by straight lines on the subway map. Few bus maps serve this function. Individual stops are almost never labeled (excepting perhaps a transit center or major commuter station), and the maps themselves often appear as simple street maps with bus routes overlaid. Street maps are wonderful tools for certain purposes, but they typically tell the user almost nothing about which parts of the city are important or how those places are connected.

The map I’ve created here attempts to address these two problems simultaneously for the city of Detroit’s DDOT bus system. First, it adopts the thickness/color method of differentiating routes based on frequency. Second, it identifies key stops where major routes intersect at points of interest, marking and labeling them much as a rapid transit diagram might. Ideally, these locations would be targeted for improved stops and shelters, clear signage, and pedestrian improvements in the immediate vicinity so that riders had a clear sense of arriving at a “station.”

Now, I don’t want to give myself too much credit. The current DDOT bus map, which you can see here, already attempts to do both of these things as well to a certain degree. However, it labels only four locations of interest – Downtown, State Fair, Fairlane, and St. John’s Hospital – and it marks “major” and “secondary” routes without giving specific service goals in terms of vehicle frequency. The current map’s readability and overall attractiveness could also be improved. My goal with designing a new DDOT map was not only to make it more readable, but also to allow people to more easily understand what their city contains and how to travel around it. Hopefully my effort meets that standard.

Detail of the west side

Again, this is very much a work in progress. Please leave any feedback below. Suggestions, especially for place names, are welcome.


  1. My use of the word “important” is meant only to imply that these areas would be relevant to a large number of visitors, workers, or shoppers. More residential or peripheral stops are not unimportant to the overall network, but typically only those who live nearby need to know about them.