Creating Non-Visual Digital Maps of Metropolitan Areas

Updated July 10th with best practices for major cities such as New York City.

Planning a trip? As things start to open back up, many families are planning get togethers and trips within the US this summer. As our thoughts turn towards cities we would like to visit, there is a need for accessible digital metropolitan maps. "A metropolitan area or metro is a major city together with its suburbs and nearby cities, towns and environs over which the major city exercises a commanding economic and social influence." (Britannica.com)

As we create these metro maps, a number of best practices - what should be included or not included - have become apparent. The target audience for the maps are college students or young professionals who are blind or low vision who are traveling for school, work and/or pleasure. These young professionals are traveling to an unfamiliar city and want to have a general idea of popular sites that are available, as well as reference points around the city. As always, these maps can easily be modified to meet individual needs. Students who live in or near the metro area may also desire to have a better understanding of their metro area.

Best Practices for Metro or City Maps (Example: Raleigh, North Carolina)

General Information

These young professionals who will use the map are typically tech savvy and have solid orientation skills. The map should include approximately 50 data points; however the size of the city or metro area will determine the number of data points. 50 points is simply a target number of data points to make the map robust without being overwhelming. 70 data points is probably too many and 30 is probably not enough.

Remember the target audience? For this audience, three layers are recommended: Transportation Hubs, Cities and Points of Interest. Previously, non-visual digital maps have included Intersections; however, the goal of the metro map is to have basic information about what is there and where these things are generally located in relationship to each other around the metro area. Adding all the major roads is overwhelming, especially as each of the major intersections have to be marked in order to follow the road. For now, metro maps will not include road names with the exception of a data point that does not have any other way to mark a specific point of a large area. (Remember, each data point needs to be placed in a specific spot and the label should provide that specific spot's information. Example: A data point will be used to mark an outlier city. Placing the data point at that smaller city's Town Hall; this marks a specific place in that city.

As always, data points should not have abbreviations. Everything should be spelled out so that the screen reader will announce the word correctly.

If the name is not obvious, add a comma after the name and list what it is. Example: "Cary Station" does not indicate what kind of transportation station, so add that information by using the label "Cary Station, Amtrak Train". Keep the labels short and succinct. Remember that the target number of data points in metro maps is 50 and users do not want to hear long, repetitive pieces of information. Previously with other types of non-visual maps, especially maps created for K-12 students, best practice included adding the layer name at the end of the data point. When creating a metro map, do create the map with layers, but do not add the layer name in the data point's label. Example: "Cary Station, Amtrak Train" not "Cary Station, Amtrak Train, transportation hub".

Note: Currently, SAS Graphics Accelerator does not support 'layers'; although, this will hopefully be a future feature. Using layers now helps to organize the data points as they are being created and when the layers feature is available, the layer data will seamlessly be integrated into the future feature.

Layer: Transportation Hub

The transportation layer includes hubs/stations rather than details such as bus stops. Transportation hubs are critical for map users who will be using planes, trains or buses to arrive and/or depart the city. The Transportation Hub layer should also include a data point near the edge of the map for each major interstate and the name of the next large city along that route. Example: I-40 West to Durham and Chapel Hill and I-40 East to Wilmington. The goal with these two I-40 data points in the Raleigh map is to provide general transportation information (driving entrance/exit) and does not require additional data points along I-40 to indicate the direction of the interstate and the data point does not need to be associated with a specific intersection.

The transportation layer should include:

  • Bus stations
  • Train stations
  • Airports
  • Ferry terminals
  • Tunnels
  • Major interstates and next large city along that interstate

Layer: Cities

The Cities layer includes the primary city or cities if it is a metro map as well as outlying cities/towns of note. Use the City Hall or Town Hall for the specific location of these outlier cities and towns. The cities layer can also differentiate between well-known communities within the main city.

Layer: Points of Interest

The Points of Interest layer includes noteworthy places within the city or metro area. These data points are for major, well-known areas and should not include smaller places. Examples: Major universities are listed but community colleges are typically not listed. The major sport arenas are listed but local community baseball fields are not. Primary categories include:

  • Hospitals
  • Universities (use the student union as the specific location)
  • Large music venues and theaters for performing arts
  • Sporting arenas (including homes of pro sport teams)
  • Large museums
  • Popular places of recreation such as lakes and parks
  • Icon landmarks
  • Trendy hot spots that offer a dense collection of dining and entertainment

Example Map: Raleigh, North Carolina Metro Map

This map has 47 data points the majority of which are in the Points of Interest layer.

Best Practices for a Major Metro or Major City Maps (Example: New York City, New York)

General Information

The same goal (broad overview of the metro area), the same audience and the same three layers also apply for major cities. The map should still include about 50 points; the challenge is to identify the "heart" of the metro area. Examples:

  • Manhattan is the heart of New York City
  • The city of DC is the heart of Washington DC metro area
  • The city of San Francisco is the heart of the Bay Area

Maps of smaller cities, such as Raleigh, include one point for each nearby cities. Maps of major cities, such as New York City, should include a point for each nearby boroughs/areas such as Queens, Brooklyn, etc. With the major cities, the borough/area data point depicts a general undestanding of where these large boroughs/areas are and are not intended to show a specific intersection or place on the map.

When creating Transportation Hub data points for major cities, include relevant points for entry/exit from the heart of the metro area to/from other secondary areas in the metro area. These data points should have enhanced labels to include the name of the bridge/tunnel/station as well as a few primary destinations along that route. Examples:

  • Lincoln Tunnel to Newark Airport and New Jersey
  • Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn
  • Whitehall Ferry Terminal to Staten Island

In addition, some bus/train station Transportation Hub data points should be enhanced to include information about their service areas. Example: Penn Station, serves Amtrak and regional areas.

Example Map: New York City Metro Map

The New York City map has 51 data points.

Resources