Stylish Vintage and Contemporary American Transit Maps


Mark Ovenden has been a real “geek” about transportation maps since he was a kid, when he’d draw maps of the New York and London transportation systems, as well as “fantasy maps” of transportation systems he dreamed up. As he grew older, started a media career, and began to travel, he continued to collect maps from the cities he visited, and friends snagged maps for him from the cities they visited, while borrowing from his collection for their trips.

Ovenden assumed that a book compiling all these maps already existed, but when he looked around, he realized there was a void he might fill. He began with his own maps, and then started hunting down more, even asking local restauranteurs to help translate his requests for foreign maps into languages like Urdu. After getting permission to document new and old maps of systems from Beijing to Toulouse, France to Los Angeles, Ovenden had what he needed.

Transit Maps of the World was first released in Britain in 2003; this month, a new, expanded edition hits US shelves. Through his popular book, Ovenden has encountered thousands of likeminded fans of transit maps, ranging from design and cartography aficionados to determined globetrotters to fascinated kids.

He explains that the iconic nature of maps arises partly from their value, the purpose they serve for the underground traveler, far below the famous skylines that typically orient you in a city. “One of the things about being underground is there are no landmarks,” he told Flavorwire. “Because you’re underneath it, you can’t see it. So the maps have become mythical in their popularity. Without them, how would you find your way through this rabbit warren of tunnels?”

Ovenden prefers the London Tube’s typeface, the Paris Metro’s density, and the “rocking, 24/7” nature of New York City’s subway system, and longs to visit cities like Moscow and Shanghai to check out their underground worlds. But what he loves about all trolley, tube, and metro systems, no matter where they are, is the way they bring people together. “We have this strange system in Britain called ‘class’ where rich upper-class [people] are supposed ride around on horseback,” he joked. “But on public transport you see everyone, all on that same transit vehicle. Sometimes it can be frustrating if people don’t open the door for you, or there’s a delay — but I’d rather be there with my fellow citizens experiencing those delays then polluting the air in a big empty car.”

Below find six vintage transit maps from Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World: Expanded and Updated Edition of the World’s First Collection of Every Urban Train Map on Earth.

Historical Philadelphia streetcar map, collection of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Historical Boston commuter rail map (1974), collection of Richard Thorogood

Historical Boston T map (1967), collection of Richard Thorogood

Historical map of New York (1904), collection of Peter Lloyd . “They had very clever ideas when they built the IRT in 1904,” says Ovenden. “They four-tracked it so if you close one of those down you can still run trains on the other track.”

Historical map of New York (1904), collection of Peter Lloyd

Contemporary LA Metro map, courtesy LA MTA. “The first time I went to LA in the 1970s, it was horrific,” says Ovenden. “It was expressways everywhere, and you literally could not walk in LA. People would honk at you and say, ‘Get a car!’ But LA is getting a decent transit system now.”