Can You Build a Better MBTA Map? Do You Hate Getting Paid?

If you answered yes to these questions, the MBTA has the contest for you!


The MBTA is holding a competition to solicit maps that improve on their current design. This has the kinds of people who design transit maps for, you know, money a little peeved. Crowd sourcing! The creative solution of a cash-strapped government agency that can’t pay experts on spec.

The MBTA’s competition lasts through April 30 and the transit authority is asking for submissions in two categories. The first is more open-ended. They want “any map of the MBTA system, or an aspect of the MBTA system” and the map can be interactive or not. The second category is more structured. “The map must be of the full MBTA Rapid Transit system — with the aim to improve upon the standard ‘spider map.'” Winners get their submission displayed on the web and in the State Transportation Building. But read the fine print. Aye, there’s the rub:

All submissions shall become the sole property of the MBTA. The MBTA shall own the entire copyright in all submissions selected, in whole or in part, for use in the final map design.

Competitors whose submissions are not selected, in whole or in part, shall grant to the MBTA a worldwide, perpetual, gratis license to reproduce and/or use the submission in any way, in any medium now known or hereafter devised, for any purpose, including but not limited to publication, exhibition and archive of the competition results.

Hmm. As longtime readers of Cameron Booth’s Transit Maps blog know, the current MBTA map could do with a makeover. The problem, Booth argues, is that newer modes of transit like the Silver Line and commuter rails have been added somewhat inelegantly to the basic design. This makes the modern iteration something of a “hot mess.” (His words.) Booth has even taken a crack at designing a better version himself. He probably won’t be taking another one in the next few weeks, he writes, because:

Simply put, this competition is insulting to designers and cartographers — skilled practitioners of a difficult and complex discipline of design — who deserve their talent to be recognised and rewarded. There are plenty of amazing professionals in America who make their living out of designing maps — good, usable, beautiful maps — all of whom would love to work on this project, and would do an excellent job of it.

Insulting though it may be, transit map design nerds might give the MBTA good ideas anyway. We’ve seen plenty of unsolicited, uncompensated attempts to revise the map, from Booth and from others, like the guy who made a map based on projected transit times. When Boston’s Hubway bikeshare system released its data so designers could depict it in cool ways, they got a ton of nice depictions that shed light on the ways people bike through the city. On the other hand, this could yield very little, and time might be a factor. Over in the comments on Universal Hub, Andy W. writes:

If you can make a map in three weeks that’s good enough to officially represent a major transit system, you should definitely not be doing it for free in a contest. (And yes, you can make a living with maps!)

It’s one thing to ask designers to work on spec. It’s another to tell them there’s absolutely no chance the design will bring them anything more than passing recognition. Without better incentives, it remains an open question whether other talented designers will be rushing to offer the T their services free of charge. We might be stuck navigating with our hot mess of a map awhile yet.