You’re so skewed.

An art form I truly appreciate and partake in more and more is cartography.  Like everything else, the romantic old methods have been replaced with digital tools, but this has allowed us to do such interesting things.  I deemed myself a cartographer in graduate school (when I basically got a masters in New York City), but now turn my cartographic attention to my current and childhood home of DC (now the city, before the SUBurbs).

One thing that has really irked me since I moved back is the DC metro map:

It’s a graphic disguised as a map.  The lines are obviously stylized to read easier, which makes sense when used as a simple guide to use the system-which I believe is its primary intended purpose.

The problem I have with maps that stress form over function (as a traditional, accurate representation of actual space) is that they produce judgments that are equally as skewed as the maps.

Here is a map I made using the actual locations of the lines and stations:

My first point here is that the stations are not as evenly spaced in some locations as the stylized map shows. For instance on the west (Vienna) side of the orange line, you see 4 stations spread apart and 5 bunched together.  The 5 bunched together create the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which is hailed as a great walkable area and a national example of transit-oriented development.  It’s because when the stations are closer together, your chances of being within walking distance of one is far better than when they’re miles apart.  The rest of the system seems to still serve primarily as a commuter rail for suburbanites to get into DC.  More stations please!

It’s so unfortunate that DC metro planners (and DC residents in general) have been and continue to be so active against using New York as a model (where you can walk from station to station).  I feel like it’s the sour grapes, second-best complex that keeps DC from taking even the good ideas from New York.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about the “second best subway system”, with an undertone of “well, first doesn’t matter because its New York, which isn’t even America.”  A few months ago, I was reading a post on a DC blog about how Five Guys (a DC better-than-fast-food chain) opened up a restaurant in Manhattan that actually had lines out the door when it first opened.  There was a sense of vindication in that post…like Five Guys made DC better than NYC for a second.

The second thing that irks me far more than the first is that the official map makes it look like DC is pretty evenly covered by metro.  It’s not.  You can see in my map that there are some pretty big chunks of space in the city that are not close to metro and that the downtown area, where a ton of stations converge is actually a smaller area than shown officially.

This one points out the areas that are within a 1/2 mile of the stations, which is often considered the upper limit of what people would be willing to walk.  I just hate how the official map makes Northeast DC (an area of the city in dire need of more investment) or really the entire north of the city look like it has service, when it doesn’t.

Actually, I’m not even sure people in DC realize that there are neighborhoods pretty far north and pretty far east because they’re not so easy to get to.  But then again DC has a persistent condition of having transient folks that don’t know much about the city at all…they all seem to be confined to the Northwest quadrant and don’t seem to be aware of much beyond.  It’s strange coming from New York, where I felt like there was a pride in knowing as much as possible about the city: its history, its mysteries, its underground, its thousands of offerings and its many individual neighborhoods.  DC in itself is a fascinating place with quite a history and LOCAL political atmosphere…it’s unfortunate that doesn’t pulsate through all of the people.

That devolved into a rant about DC.  The point is DC has a lot of potential and maps are cool, even when they’re all skewy.


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6 Responses to “You’re so skewed.”

  1. Nicole Says:

    A very interesting post. I love maps too both for what they show and what they don’t. I only really know the central part of DC so this was very interesting. I would love to see a map of Manhattan showing the 1/2 mile walking distances.

  2. Lolly Says:

    fascinating post – and so true! i love your overlays. they are much more true to life. there are some severely underserved areas in the city, and it is true that we need more stations… but the rate hikes never go to make new stations now, do they?

  3. mightyme Says:

    Great graphics! I just enjoy riding the Green Line when it heads from Shaw/Howard to Archives because I know that it really is a straight shot underneath 7th St NW. That I know is accurately depicted. The rest of their map, I question.
    We do need more stations, even in the District.

  4. mmmona Says:

    Hi, thanks for the great comments–A similar map could pretty easily be done for Manhattan, so maybe I’ll post one soon. There are some gaps in NYC, but I think the difference between there and here is striking.
    So the thing about rate hikes and metro investments is metro is just generally underfunded by the member states (DC, MD, VA). The rate hikes really just keep the system afloat, but as it is, with current funding levels, I believe metro can adequately maintain the current system only until 2020…also after that metro may not be able to absorb any new riders without new capacity (lines/trains/etc), which it really can’t afford…Metro really needs more money.

  5. Mary Says:

    I’ve always wanted maps like these. Thanks for using your skills! I think I remember the day when I stared at the Metro map long enough to notice how it was out of proportion.

  6. Pierre Says:

    Metro actually has very much the first map on their website –

    – and of course most people aren’t checking the website while on the Metro when the ‘convenient’ map is there. The second map is really profound, I thank you!

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