The Lost Subways of North America: A Cartographic Guide to the Past, Present, and What Might Have Been by Jake Berman

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Posted 2023-12-31

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

In The Lost Subways of North America, cartographer Jake Berman finds patterns in not just his diagrams of transit systems from the past, imagined, proposed, and built, but also in the forces at play in North American transit history. His book surveys 23 transit systems in the US and Canada, and, in his maps and summaries of each, he touches on unique aspects of geography, political will, development, and the themes of transit system losses and lessons learned.

Berman's book arises from his simple question (p. 1): "Why doesn't LA have good public transit?" He finds his answer in a common-sense approach through his cartographic work and by examining each transit system's past, possibilities, and present state. He admits his book's limitations (p. 2): he will look at critical factors of each system, but he admits that there may be many more factors.

The colorful maps shine in this book (and are available for sale at Although each transit system's text coverage consists of just a few pages, these summaries provide useful overviews of each transit system's development that could serve any citizen, transit user, decision-maker, or transportation professional with some insight. In particular, many young people today may never have realized that alternatives to automobile transit flourished a century ago with extensive urban rail systems at all scales covering large, medium, and some small cities all over the country in spiderwebs of frequently operating and well-used rail transit lines. Perhaps by seeing these maps showing early streetcar and urban rail systems, present-day people may realize that alternatives to car-dominance of transportation have operated, flourished, and are possible now.

A concise primer on these transit modes starts the book. Berman states a concise overview of good transit: "Good mass transit should be fast, frequent, and reliable, and it should go where people want to go. This does not require a specific technology, but it does require choosing the right tool for the job." (p. 3). This concise description of transit goals corresponds to widely accepted principles of transit (Rodrigue et al., 2020; Woldeamanuel, 2016; Spieler, 2018; )

Berman also concisely presents a helpful glossary of transit modes, including:

Berman's title phrase, "Lost Subways," is an excellent attention-getting simplification and marketing term for his maps for sale. However, his coverage is more accurately the multimodal story of 23 metropolitan transit systems and their historical development, including how different types of transit modes, vehicles, and systems grew and interacted in different urban geographies.

Berman's book tells of losses and lessons, and these insights can help reveal patterns that could inform the planning, operation, and future of transit. Here are just some highlights of these losses and lessons:



Each transit system Berman examined revealed a unique story of many forces. The transition of North American mobility from pre-automotive modes to the rapid adoption of early rail technologies marked a time of the rise of vibrant urban areas where walking and transit mode fabrics became etched into urban cores. The age of multimodal urban mobility ended with the introduction and exclusive promotion of the automobile as the apex of transportation. The lessons learned revolve around understanding the strength of land use to support transit and the clarity of vision, leadership, and ambition required to build and manage metropolitan-scale infrastructure projects.

In the end, Berman's book's strengths include his maps of historic, imagined, proposed, and operating transit systems but also the insight he briefly explains in the text: the wisdom of placing transit near people, the power of unleashing productive land use near transit, and the wisdom of providing multimodal transit options with the simple principles of speed, frequency, and reliability. Combining competence for day-to-day management and vision for long-term and big-picture planning with a keen political will to succeed may be the critical ingredients for a metropolitan transit system's success.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©