Schematic bike maps?

Ever since Harry Beck designed his iconic schematic map of the London Underground in 1933, other transit agencies have followed suit with their own abstract maps. Transit routes are shown as color-coded straight lines with sharp turns. Stops are equidistant, and the physical geography is omitted.

Navigating Tokyo’s rail transit was easy for me as a teen growing up in a western suburb of Tokyo. I just needed to know walking directions from a station near my destination. I could look at the JNR Tokyo map and quickly determine which trains to take and where to transfer.

Transit agencies create abstract maps to highlight the network structure of the system. Who cares if you’re crossing a river if all you need to know is the connecting line between two stations?

Schematic bicycle maps

Twin Cities Minneapolis St Paul schematic bicycle map

Bike Walk Twin Cities publishes more traditional geographic cycling maps for the Minneapolis / St. Paul region, but they also have this more abstract overview showing a high level schematic of the regional bike network. This can be helpful when traveling among the different cities. I can then refer to the more detailed geographic maps to find the meander off of the main cycling routes to my final destination. Routes are color coded as “existing network” vs “under development network.” Besides showing long distance routes, this maps also highlights discontinuities in the long distance cycling network.

Derbyshire county schematic bicycle map

Derbyshire County in England also experimented with an abstract regional bike map (shown above). The routes are color coded like subway routes.

What about a highly geographic city like San Francisco? The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (“Muni”) famously superimposes their transit map onto a detailed map of San Francisco. But I think I like what I see in this map showing cross-town bike routes as colored bike routes. Landmarks and major intersections are shown as “stations” on this map created by Mat Kladney.

Abstract / Schematic San Francisco bicycle map

Kladny contributed this abstract bicycle map of San Francisco for a cartography symposium at UC Berkeley. He writes:

The current San Francisco bicycle map is difficult to approach, especially when answering the simple question, “how to I get from here to there?” This map has everything you might possibly want in a bicycle map in a hilly city: the grade and name of every San Francisco street, four different types of bike lane, even contour lines for every hill from Twin Peaks to the slight elevation change found in the Mission. Unfortunately by trying to be everything, it loses much of its usability. Tracking the best way to get across the city becomes more difficult when confronted with so much data. This new simplified map helps cyclists to quickly and easily find the shortest route through town.

As an occasional visitor to San Francisco, the San Francisco bike map intimidates me. Kladny’s schematic helps me determine the way for travel between neighborhood in the City. I can then wayfind to my eventual destination with the detailed map.

Need to get from Downtown to the Bernal Heights? Just follow the Blue Line. This simplicity will reframe the existing San Francisco bicycle lanes as the San Francisco Bicycle System and will help convince more people to saddle up and take to the streets.

See more discussion on Mat Klady’s San Francisco bike route schematic at See Through Maps and The Atlantic Cities. H/T to Jenny Oh for this bit of San Francisco mapping goodness.


  1. I like these maps because they are less about facility types (which are in a state of disarray often, or unusable, so therefore don’t advise on how to create a route) and more about good routes. If you want to get from here to there, find the route in the key, and then find that color on the map.

    Chicago did this to the most limited extent when it identified “spoke routes” that use one or more streets to reach downtown. They aren’t necessarily making those routes the best for cycling before they make other streets better for cycling, though, so it will be awhile before we see the results of this kind of infrastructure classification.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle with this type of technology to find the best way to get from here to there. In this day and age, having to reply on paper for anything seems a bit old fashioned.

    I realize this statement is nothing new, having worked with Xerox in the 80’s, going through the computer revolution when they said, paper is dead. But really, when it comes to finding the very best way around, given so many different circumstances and road conditions, etc…is there an app for this map that we can give input or feedback to?

    A recent visit to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View may also be influencing my thinking. Now that brought back memories of the stone (my) age, and it wasn’t really that long ago.

    One thing that was cool, was sitting in the Google mapping car and on the mapping bike.

    Whenever I go places I have not been or want to look for a newer route, I use Google maps…I like street level view or taking a tour too…Oh also, they just came out with a new update!

    My hope is that there will eventually be an app that will let you decide what is best, based on inputting parameters of what you want to do along the way. What type of ride, are you touring, want to get there fast, stores, eateries, traffic, road conditions, recent detours, crashes, injuries or deaths, what’s next?

    Ah heck, maybe I’ll get one of those printed maps and hang it on my wall too!…~;}

    Side note: It was taking forever to scroll around and zoom on the PDF version of the map, so I loaded it into APE and converted it to a jpg…now, I can zoom in and scroll around at lightning speeds!

  3. The other thing I’m finding difficult on this map, are the main street names. Some are very small and hard to read, like “Dewey” (Forrest Hill). They are also too similar to the cross streets, but without the notch. Maybe they should be in (parentheses).

    With so many different color designations, it may take time to get the location right. The browns and greens are similar, for example. The other thing to keep in mind is not all printers print color alike, so there could be some unknown issues.

    Then there are the actual directions from one point to another. This map seems too simplified (straight lined), when comparing to Google maps. I’ve run various comparative routes using Google Bike and it’s a whole lot different when you consider all the variables. Like going from GG Bridge to Balboa Park and then out to the Zoo. The whole Ocean, Stonestown, Eucalyptus is confusing when compared to a real map. And he left out a good alternative route using Sagamore, Brotherhood, Lake Merced, John Muir, 35 to Zoo.

    Also, depending on the direction of travel, you may need to take a slight alternative (roundabout) route, based on how intersections are setup in heavy traffic areas. Those details are not really possible to include on these maps.

    Hey, can I also get a clue-sheet with this?

    OK, that my two bits worth…

  4. It works for the London tube on a number of levels. One, you’re underground and so don’t see the real world above you (that is the world that these maps ignore!). Two, you’re on a train so don’t particularly care about the left and right turns or the distance between the spots. Cycling however requires both of these. Hence the GPS garming/iphone success.

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