Mapping Berlin’s Transit System

John K. Peck tracks the fascinating (and turbulent) history of Berlin’s public transport map designs…

Berlin’s transit system (like the city as a whole) is unafraid to show its 20th-century scars, even as it struggles to recover from them. The trains themselves tend to run solidly on the side of German efficiency, and are supported by a veritable phalanx of buses, trams, and ferries. Less efficient, however, are many of the transfers, particularly between the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, and especially in locations that were bisected or isolated by the Wall.

As with most cities, Berlin has two overarching systems: the more localised U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn, “underground railway”) with a higher density of stops in the city center, and the broader S-Bahn (Stadtschnellbahn, “city rapid railway”), which connects the city to its outlying districts, as well as Brandenburg, greater Germany, and Europe as a whole.

25 years after reunification, the U-Bahn and S-Bahn are still not entirely synchronised – most evident in stations like Warschauer Strasse, still two stations in all but name. The fault lies not with the respective systems, however, but with the arbitrary and brutal way they were split for decades, essentially forcing each system to cover an entire city alone.

Mapping A Divided City 

Karte ubahn berlin entwicklung" by Sansculotte
1913 Transport Map of Berlin

After WWII, the division of Berlin saw the Eastern-based S-Bahn administered by the Soviets, while the U-Bahn was administered by the Western sectors. With the construction of the Wall in 1961, the division of West and East became official, and their children (the U- and S-Bahn, respectively) were caught in the messy aftermath.

The S-Bahn, which had hubs at Ostkreuz and Alexanderplatz as well as routes outward to the greater countryside, became the sole providence of the GDR, while most U-Bahn lines fell within the borders of West Berlin, and were run by the West.

Parts of the lines now known as the U6 and U8 ran through East Berlin, and while the lines were allowed to continue operating, the stations they served were shut down, patrolled in near-dark by GDR soldiers. These stations, known by the evocative name Geisterbahnhöfe (“ghost stations”), are a fascinating subject in their own right.

While London, Paris, and other cities throughout Europe and the world may have ghost stations of their own, none of these can match the pervasive feeling of dread that passengers must have felt passing dimly-lit stations, in tunnels fitted with cement collars to keep potential escapees from clinging to the sides of trains.

Western U-Bahn maps during the years of the Wall tend to show East Berlin as an atrophied, thin-veined presence to the east, and to ignore the spectral western presence of Potsdam and greater East Germany entirely.

In a 1966 map, the ghost stations are marked with X’s, and Warschauer Strasse (at the time, “Warschauer Bridge”) is completely cut off from the system, a dead extremity, amputated by the Wall. By 1988, the ghost stations are empty, and Warschauer is listed only on the eerily thin lines of the Eastern S-Bahn.

1966 U-Bahn map
1966 U-Bahn map

The S-Bahn maps produced by the GDR, in turn, display an ever-increasing disconnect from the West, culminating in one of the strangest and most arcane urban transit maps ever produced: the official 1980 S-Bahn map. Even by the standards of arcane Socialist aesthetics, the map is about as strange as they come.

Meticulously recreated by professor and designer Max Roberts, it is certainly one of the most beautiful, and at the same time least-useful urban transit maps out there; an uncanny doppelganger of a once-familiar system, down to its not-quite-Futura font.

Max Roberts' recreation of 1980 S-Bahn map
Max Roberts’ recreation of 1980 S-Bahn map

It is foremost of all the GDR-era S-Bahn maps in that it is not designed to help passengers find routes between stations, but rather to display the system as a beautiful, rainbow-hued unity. Ultimately, it resembles nothing so much as the circulatory system of  an autonomous, self-sustaining organism, wholly unconcerned with the amoeba-like apparition of West Berlin to its left.

If the 1980 S-Bahn map is indifferent to West Berlin, by 1988 it looks ready to swallow it whole – a division further cemented by the handover of the western S-Bahn lines to BVG in 1984. Here, West Berlin is a withered nothingness inside the socialist Pac-Man of the S-Bahn. Potsdam is placed at what looks like a breezy five-minute trip from Ostkreuz; in reality, the two stations are over 30 kilometers apart.

1989 S-Bahn map
1989 S-Bahn map

In its design, it echoes the S-Bahn map from 1951, but the ring shape is deceptive: the later map echoes the shape of the pre-and-post-Wall S41/42 Ring route, but is at a much more massive scale (without any corresponding scale on the map itself), and actually shows the current Zone C regional line, which likely would have taken the better part of a day to make one full circuit.

The Triumph Of Minimalism

From a design perspective, the transit maps of most major European cities share the same broad description: a busy central hub (often straddling a north-south or east-west river), one or several circular lines, and a sunburst of outlying lines that extend past the ring, terminating in distant suburban townships.

Each of these regions presents problems for designers: the crowded central areas can make it tricky to differentiate between stations and indicate transfer points, and the outer districts have what could be called a suburban scale problem: for each station to fit onto the map, suburban extensions must be severely simplified and shortened, making them appear as tucked-and-folded vestigial limbs with a crowded laundry-list of stops.

The current BVG map, created by design icon Erik Spiekermann, was made just after reunification in the early 1990s. The map uses the proprietary font Spiekermann designed for BVG, and it is impressively legible, particularly considering the lengths of some of the German capital’s station names and the sheer number of transfers between the numerous lines of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

With only three zones, as opposed to Paris’ five or London’s six, the current Berlin transit map is able to use shading in a highly effective way: no shading for Zone A, very light grey for Zone B, and slightly darker grey for Zone C. Like many transit maps around the world, it uses an octolinear system (i.e. each line of track is vertical, horizontal, or at 45 degrees) for readability.

Vignelli's 1972 NYC Transit map
Vignelli’s 1972 NYC Transit map

Pioneering designer Massimo Vignelli (who died on May 27th of this year) was a strong – sometimes nearly militant – proponent of minimalism in mapping: “If you have to abstract geography,” he once said, “why have it at all?” His famously stark and geometric map of the NYC Subway system, released in 1972, was met with resistance at the time by New Yorkers who felt it was too removed from the city to be a useful wayfinding tool.

In retrospect, though, Vignelli’s map was a strong influence on later designers, encouraging them to portray transit systems with a greater freedom from geographic representation than they might have had otherwise.

But can a map that emphasizes readability and aesthetics be considered disingenuous if it strays too far from reality, essentially suggesting that all routes are equal? Or is the map as much a part of the fundamental transit experience as time spent sitting on trains and walking through stations?

Max Roberts' curvaceous redesign of the modern Berlin system
One of Max Roberts’ funky Berlin map redesigns

Max Roberts (who re-created the 1980 S-Bahn map above) approaches maps not only as a designer, but also as a psychologist. He has several interesting takes on Berlin’s transit system, rendering it as both a London-style octolinear rainbow and a curved-armed sunburst. His circular maps, featured in the Guardian, are both beautiful and pleasantly disorienting, and echo some of Spiekermann’s preliminary designs for BVG, including one based on circles.

According to Serbian-born, Paris-based designer and architect Jug Cerovic, maps are a more fundamental part of the transit experience than just serving as navigational tools. Cerovic is the developer of the INAT international mapping standard, which he has applied to transit maps throughout the world, from his native Belgrade to cities throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.

Jug Cerovic's map of Berlin
Jug Cerovic’s map of Berlin

His goal is to present a standardized system for global transit that is “easy to read, easy to memorize, easy to use.” The second item, memorization, stands out most: as far as design criteria go, ease of memorization is certainly a much-undervalued feature, particularly in the age of smartphones, where a map is never more than a few screen-taps away. Cerovic believes memorization of a system is, for newcomers or visitors to a city, “a powerful ally… I consider a good schematic map a learning tool that will show you how the network works and allow you to memorize its layout.”

In his view, long-time residents as well partake in this map-based learning: “If you ask long-time residents about how they see the metro network, you will probably notice that most of them know it by heart, and that it is the official schematic map that has shaped their perception of it.” Viewed in this light, maps are not just tools for navigating a transit system, but an ongoing, permanent part of the system itself.

Cerovic loves comparing different cities’ maps: “I love the Moscow map because of its near-perfect symmetry and balance, and Tokyo because of the density and complexity of the network – representing it on a 20 x 20cm piece of paper is really a daunting task.” For him, standardization is not something that limits designers, but instead frees them: “A standardized mapping system is a language, a tool, in the hands of the designer. It is up to him to articulate it to make it suit a particular city best.”

Maps As A Political Statement 

If a well-organized map informs a transit rider’s sense of the system and the city, as Cerovic suggests, why stop there? Can something as quotidian as a transit map influence ideas of identity or nationhood? In some instances (such as London’s Underground), a transit system’s aesthetic becomes so iconic that it is part of the city’s cultural identity.

Berlin’s map doesn’t have the same global caché, but according to its designer (Spiekermann), the post-unification BVG map had to foremost be an educational tool: “The people on either side were not familiar with the other side. Our first job was to design maps for the bus drivers who suddenly had to drive their buses from one side to the other.”

Official BVG map
Official BVG map

But the current Berlin map was as much a political catalyst as it was a practical product of its time. Spiekermann remembers the “white space” and “thin lines” that Cold War-era East and West each used to depict the other side. “Instead of the differences inside the city,” he says, “we showed the new and larger whole.” In particular, Spiekermann’s depiction of the Ringbahn served to illustrate the political climate of the time.

“In order to make a statement about the new Berlin being united, we emphasized the Ringbahn — even though at the time that ring was incomplete — more than it needed to be from an informational point of view. There is one track only, but used by four different lines. Instead of just drawing one line in a neutral colour or a dotted line with four segments, we ran the four lines parallel. That made it very thick and very important: it showed that Berlin was one city again.”

This is mapping at its most hopeful: the representation of a whole, circular, and fully-functioning Ringbahn prior to its completion stands as a powerful corrective to the intentional omissions and misrepresentations of Berlin’s Cold War-era maps. “That diagram was a political statement,” says Spiekermann, “and nobody has touched it since, except for additions and name changes.”

Tellingly, like Vignelli, Spiekermann uses the word “diagram” rather than “map”. It’s an important distinction, and one that echoes Cerovic’s view of maps as shapers of the transit experience beyond their usefulness as wayfinding tools.

By any estimation, transit maps are certainly unique in the field of cartography in that they must at once represent and disregard a city’s particular geography: in many ways, the more true-to-life a transit map is, the less useful it becomes. Berlin’s wild assortment of maps is as fraught as any other part of its history; ultimately, they are a fascinating record of how diagrams can equally influence, and be influenced by, the forces of history.

Links & References

BVG (official)

Mark Byrnes, “A Painstakingly Recreated S-Bahn Map From a Divided Berlin” CityLab (2014)

WNYC/Transportation Nation, “Vignelli, Designer of Famous Subway Map, Defends His Version Over These Others” WNYC (2012)


Max Roberts

Gary Gale, “Re-Imagining Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn Systems” (Mostly Maps Blog, 2013)

Max Roberts, “Going round in circles: the New York subway map redesigned” (The Guardian, 2013)

Max Roberts, “Henry Beck Rules: not OK?” (March, 2009)

Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta Books, 2003)

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