Behind the Scenes: Evolution of the Chicago CTA Rail Map from 1996-2006 and Beyond
This material was sent to me via email by Dennis McClendon, who runs Chicago CartoGraphics, a design firm in the Windy City that specialises in maps and information graphics. His email — which outlines his role in the development of the Chicago “L” map as used in the CTA system map brochure (the first link on this page) — is so fascinating that I’m basically reproducing it in its entirety below. In effect, Dennis is Transit Maps’ first guest writer!
A little inside history on the CTA map:
I took over the CTA system map (the folded paper citywide map showing all buses and trains) in 1995. The “cover side” of the map was produced by an internal graphics department and had all the bus schedule info, how to ride info, and a diagrammatic train map.
Transit maps are a longtime passion, and I had quite a collection from around the world. I thought the diagrammatic train map CTA was using (Image 1 above) was embarrassing, and asked permission to redesign it. I was told they’d “take a look.” So I spent a Saturday trying a couple of different approaches. Since the 1980s, I’ve had a London Underground Journey Planner on my office wall for inspiration, so I first tried a very Beck-like approach for grins (Image 2). But it just didn’t feel like it belonged to Chicago.
I had a hazy memory of a map CTA had used, probably only on carcards, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there were no examples of that left around the system. Nonetheless, that memory guided me to try fat color lines with white circles for stations. One of the main innovations I wanted to introduce was the “hollow dumbbell” to show transfer points in an instantly comprehensible way. At the time, CTA was using a circled T to indicate transfer points—and those survived as a sort of belt-and-suspenders thing.
One strange thing about CTA is that different departments do maps for the paper system map, maps displayed at train stations, and the maps over the doors in the trains (carcards). I only produced the one on the paper system map, which was also provided to guidebook publishers (and soon turned into neckties and shower curtains, and used on a variety of marketing and branding materials). CTA soon imitated my diagram, however, for the station maps and carcard maps (though they would not give up the “T for transfer” on the carcards). The typeface began as Helvetica, which has a strong heritage at CTA, then changed to Frutiger Condensed (Image 3) on recommendation of an outside consultant (to my delight, since I’m a big Frutiger fan); then reverted to Helvetica after that design firm disappeared.
One particularly tricky thing in Chicago is the orthogonal nature of the city, whose gridded streets run absolutely straight for 25 miles. Chicago has five rapid transit stations called “Western,” and there’s a natural inclination to see them line up. That limits the spatial distortion that can be introduced, yet the downtown area has many closely spaced stations. CTA always preferred, therefore, to have an enlarged inset for the Loop area. I’ve always maintained a “unitary” version (Image 4), however, that I use for other tourism clients, sometimes in other typefaces. I also figured it would let me sidestep copyright issues with CTA.
I lost the CTA system map contract to another company in 2007 (though I recently got the RTA contract). Meanwhile, Graham Garfield at CTA assumed oversight of all customer information, finally putting all the different maps under one boss. Among many other things, he’s a design aficionado, but I don’t always agree with his decisions. He put the highly accurate gridded maps into the stations rather than the diagrammatic map; I think his feeling was that it helps give riders more context of the city around that rail system. (The latest version of this map was reviewed on Transit Maps here)
This not-so-diagrammatic map (Image 5) is the one on the [brochure PDF on the] CTA website these days as well. The carcards, however, still retain the diagrammatic look.
An element I always thought was important was having the station names in the same color as the lines, so I was surprised that the most recent system map changed that. The wheelchair icons got fussier, and readers are now insulted with the notation “Map Not to Scale.” As a cartographer, I also cringe to see “Lake Michigan” not in italics. I asked Graham about that over lunch recently, and he mumbled something about italics being harder to read.
Dramatically speaking, this is a map of my heart and home.