The LRT’s New System Map: A Minor Rant | By Nigel Brachi

First of all, let me be clear: I really like the LRT system in our city. I use it almost every day, and I find it reliable, fast, clean and efficient. When new extensions open, I’m there riding the rails and admiring the new stations. Heck, the new pedway at Health Sciences/Jubilee is genuinely worth a stopover: some of the architectural details there are just exquisite. So no, this is not a rant about the system in general, or about the service. It’s about their new system maps.

The photo at the top shows one of the new maps in situ. They are visible across the tracks from the platforms, and there are two versions, for north and southbound tracks. Below is the northbound version up close: the train comes from the right, so the northbound stations are to the left. This is a small detail, and not everyone appreciates it, but it works really well.


So far, so good. But there is so much else wrong with this design that it’s hard to know where to start. Most of the problems are caused by the fact that someone thought it important to identify those parts of the system that are underground. Why they did this is a mystery. It cannot be meant to address accessibility issues, since all underground LRT stations have elevator access. Perhaps it’s intended as a warning for claustrophobics. Regardless, let’s look at its impact.

  • The main issue with the map is the area showing the six stations that are underground. The multiple red and blue stripes are clumsy at best, and moving the station symbols so that they “cover” all the lines, breaks the horizontal alignment and gives those stations undue prominence, without explaining why in the legend.

  • In the legend area at the top, the text reads “Capital Line – Underground Line – Surface Line”, and “Capital Line” is in a larger font to make it more prominent. But use of the word “line” three times is immediately confusing: it would have been so much clearer to say “underground section” and “surface section” or something similar. Or are there in fact three separate lines called Capital, Underground and Surface?

  • The odd red icon beside the words “Metro Line” (which indicates that some of that line is underground), just adds more confusion, but even leaving it as it is, it would have been better to align the names of the two lines, and note the opening date underneath.

Other issues are mere quibbles in comparison:

  • In the legend, the large, square icon that identifies a Transit Centre Connection doesn’t match the equivalent icons on the map itself, where they appear in circles (and are much smaller).

  • Also on the legend are the words “Metro Line to be Opened 2014”. Why does the word “Opened” have a capital “O”? For that matter, why doesn’t it just say “opening 2014”?

  • The circles showing the underground stations are not quite centred along the lines.

  • Pickiest of all, perhaps, where the track crosses the river between Grandin and University, it’s in the air, not underground.

I do understand the need to create a system map that in some sense “belongs” to Edmonton, but given that the London Underground map has sort of underpinned transit map design around the world for 80 years, there’s doesn’t seem to be any point in entirely reinventing the wheel.

As a designer, I know this map could be so much better and more effective. But my rant is not just about this particular map, because for all its failings, I recognize that it more or less does the job. The real issue is the future. This design will completely fall apart when they have to show three or four lines intersecting in the same location.

So here’s a solution that addresses the points I brought up: the map and the legend are clear and uncluttered, elements like the interchanges are distinct, and explained, and it learns from the London Underground system without being derivative. Edmonton’s own!


Is it perfect? By no means. Are there better solutions? Very likely. But hey, at least I identified the stations that are underground. I mean, just in case it’s vital information.

As for other rants, like the long station names? Don’t get me started.

Nigel Brachi works for the University of Alberta Students’ Union, and has been involved in graphic design for most of his career. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on urban transit, and he’s never met a streetcar he didn’t like.

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  • Guido

    Got my vote. Your version look much cleaner. Can’t image what it would look like once lines from Leduc, Stoney Plain, St. Albert, and Sherwood Park get in there.

    • naphappy

      StoNY Plain not Stoney Plain…

  • Indy_G

    That was refreshing: a rant that doesn’t just point out the problems, but also offers a solution at the end. Well done, sir. When it comes to visuals, I consider myself a big picture person and readily admit that I am not so strong on details. Occasionally I find myself looking at something like a house or a car or map and I have a sense that I don’t like it, but can’t put my finger on why that would be. So I always appreciate someone with a more critical eye for detail who can give me some clues as to why a particular thing doesn’t sit right with me.

    The LRT map is a perfect example. Had I seen one before reading Nigel’s rant I would have felt a sense of unease and confusion. There’s too much going on; things don’t match up; different font sizes give a sense of sloppiness; labels don’t seem to be placed quite right, etc. If the purpose of a map is to give us information, then why not make it as clean and simple and clear as possible? I think Nigel’s example is much easier to decipher. Someone at the city, please hire that man!

  • naphappy

    Your map is terrible because it didn’t cost anything to produce (maybe an hour I guess). The other map is much better because some consultant was likely paid $15,000 to produce it.

    More seriously, you point out some amazingly bad design elements and indeed simple errors on the maps. Someone at the City and at a consulting firm needs to improve the quality of their work.

  • Rob McLauchlin

    These are the same people who are sending the southeast LRT through the east part of downtown without an actual stop in the new Quarters neighbourhood the city is busy trying to foster.

    • Ryan Stephens

      Wrong. Maybe you should go back and check your facts.

  • tim

    to be somewhat geographically correct the red line (also a better name than metro line) should appear below the blue line. That way if one were to mentally turn the map to north/south the red line stations would appear, correctly, to the west of the existing blue line which run to the north and east.

  • Nikolai

    I agree with everything you say, except for your implication that identifying an elevated bridge as “underground” is an insignificant problem. Put yourself in the position of someone unfamiliar with Edmonton, aand using our LRT for the first time. (…presumably the intended audience of this graphic message.) you know there are two lines, and you expect that the correct line takes you underground. Suddenly, you find yourself in the sunlight over the North Saskatchewan. The obvious explanation is that you are on the wrong train, so you quickly disembark at the next stop. By the time you realize your mistake, it is too late.

  • Christopher S. Mackay

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but doesn’t the branching of the red line to the right (if you’re following the track from right to left to go northwards) at Churchill imply that MacEwan and NAIT are to the east of Coliseum and Clareview?

  • Ryan Stephens

    Most of this is nitpicking that isn’t really worthy of the space on this
    page, but I guess I see how the odd unjustly capitalized letter could drive a graphic designer nuts. Nevertheless, these signs will be replaced in 10 months anyways, so maybe that explains their lack of attention to detail. The bigger question is why they waste the money to make signs that show anticipated lines when they could just wait for it to be completed.

    Either side could argued whether signifying below-ground stations is worthwhile for riders or not, but while the jury is still out, there’s no harm in including it. In that case, if it’s included, it should be discreet, which I think the city’s maps have done quite ingeniously. By taking the two solid coloured lines and whiting out the middle of each for the below-ground portion it makes the line look hollow—like, say, a tunnel. Not only that but the ‘hollow’ portion doesn’t just stop at Churchill and University stations. It keeps going and stops before the neighbouring stations, a nice way to signal roughly where the train emerges between stations. All that with just a little bit of white.

    If, as the author argues, signifying the below-ground stations is not worthwhile, it makes little sense that his map includes a pretty gaudy sentence to say so awkwardly separate from the lines.

    If there was any major design flaw, I would say that in this horizontal view, the red line should be underneath the blue line once it diverges at Churchill. It might make for a lot of white space, but as it stands both the actual map and the author’s hypothetical design suggest that the Metro Line heads to the right, or east, of the Capital Line after Churchill Station.

    That’s something that I hope to see corrected in the final version next year, but it seems unlikely.

    • Ryan Stephens

      Sorry for the long reply! I failed Internet Commenting 101.

      • CharlieBing

        Thanks for your thoughts… I really feel that their idea that the underground bits need to be highlighted is nonsense, and the “information” irrelevant, so my including it (“just in case it’s vital information”) – gaudily or otherwise – was meant ironically, even sarcastically, at best. I mean, it’s an urban transit system, for crying out loud, and they tend to go underground…

        Your point (and that of others) about the map’s orientation with regard to where the lines go is quite interesting. As a schematic, their map isn’t meant to represent the geography, but obviously they’ve go too far. I might take a run at changing it around…

        As for the signs being replaced in 10 months, I’m not so sure: the area of the legend where it says “Metro Line coming soon” is in fact a label, so they’ll probably be tearing it off…


  • Tom Joad

    Looks great, but I think the distinction between underground and at-grade lines is important for those navigating the system, especially for the first time. It indicates whether or not you should be expecting to see tracks and a station, or entrance points on a street – something that is important for wayfinding. I agree with the rest of the critique though!

    • Seth

      No other transit systems do that in Canada. It isn’t worth the extra item on the legend.

      • Jim

        I agree with Seth… the LRT is not even confusing compared to other transit stations in Canada. It’s not to complicated to figure out if its underground or not.

  • CharlieBing

    OK, so here’s the map with the geographical relationship between the lines more accurately displayed. It was surprisingly difficult to do because of the long station names (grr), so I have shown all the “double-barreled” names on two lines. It looks quite different… Anyone gor any other thoughts? Oh, yes, and the reference to the underground stations is gone. Sorry…


    • stever

      hmmm… I posted a comment yesterday which hasn’t yet appeared?

      anyway, i like this version even more. i would, however, flip it vertically; i.e. put Century Park on the left. the LRT line, apart from its 2 most southern stops, is ~NE-SW, and in particular, the downtown leg is E-W, so i think reversing the map would make it look better

      • CharlieBing

        Yes, I sort of agree with you, except that ETS needs that left/right orientation. The above example would be used on the northbound platform: Clareview and NAIT are north and to the left, and so the sign is oriented with the train’s direction when it arrives. ETS will flip it horizontally for the southbound platforms… all part of the whole schematic vs. geographic debate.

        • stever

          ah so. makes perfect sense! i thought it was the map for the station/route in general

          by the way, my first post talked about how i really liked and agree with your points. maps should be as and uncluttered as possible. yours are an improvement. Edward Tufte would be proud!

          and don’t get me going on the station names, esp. “…Fort Edmonton”

          • Nigel Brachi

            Thanks for the feedback… to be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Tufte is high praise indeed. Much appreciated!

  • MrEd

    Nigel’s map makes sense, clear and concise, informative. The City of Edmonton’s map is unclear, cluttered, and visually ackward. Go figure, City…

  • ace

    wow some people have alot of time on there hands..

    • trumped

      Well, maybe, but at least he spent some time learning how to spell and so on…

  • Don Eglinski

    I have been using the LRT for the better part of a decade, at least a few times a month. I still don’t know which stops are near what or which to get off at. I feel it is still an under-serving design.

  • thevoyageofthebeagle

    There is one and only one major problem with the city map, and you didn’t fix it. NAIT is WEST of Clairview! How am I the only person that notices this. P.S. Leave the underground indicators alone, don’t fix problems that don’t exist, that part was fine the way it was.

    • Nigel Brachi

      Check out the posts: I redrew the map to show NAIT in its proper location (at least schematically). Two or three others pointed that out. Posted under CharlieBing…

    • Neumanic

      No, “Clairview” doesn’t exist. Clareview, on the other hand …

      (Major YEG pet peeve, sorry had to comment)

  • Alix

    They’re both pretty ugly, to be honest.

  • Jc

    Very nice, your design is so much easier to understand.

  • Steven Gaudet

    Great points. I wish you had been in charge of this. It seems no one thinks of “future state” or feels it doesn’t matter.