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No mass transit in your city? Have a fake subway map instead

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Many North American cities don’t have subways, but that’s not stopping the Internet from imagining what mass transit would look like in some of America’s most car-centric metro areas.

Albuquerque, New Mexico doesn’t have a subway system, but if it did, it might look like this:

Albuquerque may never have a subway system, but one can dream, right? Credit: Ben Byrne

Designer Ben Byrne created the map, imagining his city joining the ranks of world class cities like New York City, Paris, and Seoul. As is the norm these days, Byrne started a Kickstarter campaign to complete his fantasy subway map (link). Byrne’s subway system contains six lines connecting tourist destinations and commuter stops alike:

Painstakingly crafted with authentic details, this schematic map of the greater Albuquerque area includes six subway lines extending from Coronado Monument to the Hard Rock Pavilion, with clearly-labeled stations and transit hubs that mimic the look of some of the world’s most famous subway maps. Stops like the Sunport, Old Town, Nob Hill and the Tram provide convenient access for tourists, while others help the gainfully employed get to work and back.

Byrne’s map resembles another faux map that made the rounds online several years ago of my hometown: Austin, Texas. Famous for breakfast tacos and Willie Nelson, we are also known for having terrible traffic. Scott and I lamented this fact as we navigated a spaghetti bowl of highways and flyovers on our way to authentic Tex-Mex earlier this year.

Here is what Austin would look like with a tube system, courtesy of Massachusetts-based Transit Authority Figures:

Austin's imagined subway system resembles a giant beetle. Credit: Transit Authority Figures

The map prompts questions from citizens asking why Austin can’t build a subway system. In a metro area well over a million people, a transportation system designed with 1950′s era penchant for the automobile is out of date and out of touch. An article by KUT, our local NPR affiliate, asked our region’s metro authority this question (link):

KUT News: Why can’t we have an amazing subway system like this in Austin?

Todd Hemingson: I’d love to do this. Who wouldn’t want a world class transit system that is grade separated, which means it doesn’t have to fight traffic congestion, and runs very frequently and covers a good swath of the central city and beyond. Any transit planner would love to do something like this.

My first reaction was, one, it’s kind of clever. It’s a neat idea. But two, it’s frustrating in a sense because it’s going to get people thinking, “Well why can’t we do this?” when in my point of view it would be much more productive to focus on what I would term realistic possibilities and not fantasy land.

Not everyone is so easily dissuaded. As a major subterranean stormwater project is proving in Austin, it turns out that the rock underneath Austin is well-suited to building tunnels (StateImpact Texas):

“During the tour, I overheard discussions of people saying, why don’t we have subways in Austin?” Galligan told me. “For a lot of us who have been following transportation, that’s a decade or two decade old discussion of why don’t we. Well, we don’t, because everybody believes it’s prohibitively expensive.”

Galligan isn’t convinced by that argument. He concedes that subway is more expensive than other transportation options on the table, but the Waller Creek Tunnel has come in around $147 million. “I thought what was really interesting was, a tunnel that size or a little larger could hold two tracks going two directions, for not much more.”

Galligan likes the idea of a subway running beneath downtown, connecting I-35 to Sixth and Lamar. That’s a slightly shorter tunnel than Waller Creek, and the construction would be more complicated.

“It gets complicated, you have to build out the tunnel, and ventilate it, and create access. But the idea we can’t build a mile or couple miles of subterranean transit because it’s going to cost billions of dollars, is wrong,” he said. “Don’t fool the public into thinking that it’s such a ginormous undertaking that it will never happen.”

In the meantime, I’ll be staring at my fake subway map.

In the case of Baltimore, Maryland, Chris Nelson imagined what a subway system would look like if every Subway sandwich shop was an actual transit station (how has someone not come up with this idea before? Brilliant!). Here is what he came up with:

Hop over to The Atlantic to read more about Nelson’s Baltimore map (link).

Have more imaginary subway maps? Send ‘em in.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. OgreMk5 10:05 am 04/22/2013

    The Austin one won’t work very well for the two reasons that the tram doesn’t work as well.

    1) It doesn’t connect the major population centers (which are not in Austin). Leander, Cedar Park, the majority of Pflugerville (Blackhawk, for example), Manor, etc are not single entry areas. A person would have to drive, walk, bike, or bus miles to get to a subway point. Which leads me to #2

    2) No one wants to walk, bike, or bus several miles to get to the subway when it’s 112F outside. There’s a big difference between New York or D.C. in which buildings have private entrances to the subway and the Austin area, in which one might have to walk several miles to get to the one stop in Pflugerville or Cedar Park.

    Link to this

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