Circular schematic of Sydney rail system

London psychologist Maxwell Roberts, who operates, has created a series of circular schematics of transit systems in major cities, including New York, Moscow, Madrid, Berlin, Tokyo and London.

His intention was to find a way to communicate orbital connections. After the final section of London’s new inner suburban circular railway was opened in December 2012 a number of designers “grafted circles onto standard Henry Beck schematic map rules: horizontal and vertical straight lines, and 45 degree diagonals”. Mr Roberts thought there must be a better way.

The most effective way to relate concentric circles to straight lines is to use spokes and tangents. Thus was born my ‘Circles Tube Map’, which immediately went viral on the internet. Many found the concept too alien, but others were mesmerised by its unearthly charm, totally unlike any Underground map seen before.

He has a longstanding interest in visual communication associated with transport. In his book, Underground maps unravelled: explorations in information design, he seeks to provide “an in-depth analysis of how schematic maps assist the user, when they fail, and the psychological theories that explain why”. The books asks:

whether traditional design techniques are suited to today’s complex networks, and explores what happens when the rules are broken. The result is an astonishing collection of maps for cities worldwide that challenge preconceptions about the nature of effective design.

Now he’s prepared schematic maps for the rail systems of Sydney and Melbourne. Neither system has a strong orbital character, although the comparison shows Melbourne’s near-absence of orbital connections. He told me:

Sydney was harder to do, needed three attempts to get it reasonable, the Melbourne lines are much more radial, and fit into the pattern more easily.  Tram maps are also possible, but much harder to do well – you are going into a direct battle with city streets.

Mr Roberts acknowledges his concentric circles maps involve a degree of geographical distortion, although the extent varies by city. He says that his maps and conventional geographical maps “have distinct roles to play, each serves a purpose, and so any transport undertaking that refuses to make both available is short-changing its customers”.

A good geographical map shows where the network is, a good schematic shows how the elements of a network relate together logically. An uncomfortable hybrid serves neither role as effectively.

A logical extension of the concentric circles technique would be to integrate other modes that provide a high level of orbital service e.g.10-15 minute frequent bus services, like Melbourne’s orbital Smartbus services.

You can see more of his work and philosophy at

Circular rail schematic - Melbourne