Tube topographer

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-5-10 12:51:17

By Chris Chagnon

Matt Mayer, the creator of ExploreMetro. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Mayer

Matt Mayer, a 26-year-old Web and mobile software developer, is the creator of ExploreMetro, a website that features interactive maps for the subway systems of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Singapore. Mayer, a native of Crawley, England, developed the Shanghai map after moving to the city in 2006. According to Mayer, his map of the Shanghai subway system ( receives more than 200,000 hits per month. The map can help users find the fastest route between any two stations, the estimated travel time (including transfers), the first and last departure times, and spots of interest near each station. Mayer recently spoke with the Global Times about how he came to create the website and the related mobile applications.

How did you end up here in Shanghai?

I lived in India for a year, where one of my colleagues was Shanghai-nese. He often told me how much he liked his hometown, so I came to visit him in 2005 and immediately saw this was a city I could grow to love. In January 2006, after returning to England, I bought a one-way ticket here.

You must like metro systems quite a bit. When did you first take an interest in them?

Actually my interest lies more in the maps than the trains. I've always been fascinated by metro maps, the most famous of which is probably the London Underground map. This was created by Harry Beck in 1931. He was the first person to realize that because metros run mainly underground, geographical accuracy is not important. By removing almost all surface features and forcing all lines to vertical, horizontal or 45-degree diago-nals, he made a really easy to understand map which has formed the basis of all metro maps to the present. I was mathematics major at the University of Cambridge, so the simplicity of the Beck-style maps appeals to my math-ematical mindset.

Why did you decide to make the website?

I'm a firm believer that the best ideas come when you "scratch your own itch." As soon as I arrived in Shanghai I started using the metro, and I found that online maps and timetables, especially those in English, were often outdated and inaccurate. I thought I could do sbetter, so I did. From there, it just snowballed.

The site is often praised for its ease of use and simplicity. Did you design the whole thing by yourself?

Simplicity and usability was my aim from the start, in an homage to Harry Beck. From the start this was essentially a one-man operation, though a lot of the improvements and additional features have been the result of suggestions from visitors... I also had help from some freelancers for things like updating the PDF version of the map and recording the Chinese pronunciation for each station. Although I'm more of a programmer than a designer, I've worked with many designers and I hope that their focus on the user experience has rubbed off on my work. The first version was created in a few caffeine-filled nights. With the rapid expansion of the Shanghai Metro network over the last few years, there have been literally hundreds of small and large updates since then. Now I have a solid technology platform, and the other sites have been easier to create, though every city brings new challenges. For example, the Hong Kong map has both simpli-fied and traditional Chinese versions.


How do you get such accurate information for the website? Is it provided by official sources? Amateurs? Or did you end up riding around with a stopwatch?

Some of the information I obtain from official websites, other informa-tion comes from forums such as Metrofans or Ditiezu. Some has indeed come from hours spent riding metros with a stopwatch! In particular, getting accurate timings for transfers is hard to find, and usually requires manual timing. Last year I visited every Shanghai Metro station (147 at that time) in one day in a little over 10 hours. I'm going to try and repeat the feat this year, though with all the new lines, it's going to be tough!

How did you decide to expand from Shanghai to cover other cities?

It was mainly due to hundreds of emails asking "When will you do a map for X?" More seriously, I knew that the lessons I had learned in building a Shanghai map were equally applicable for other cities in Asia, particularly those with rapidly growing subway networks and a need for multilingual interactive maps.

What kind of difficulties do you run into with the website?

The rapid expansion of the networks in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai has led to very frequent updates on the maps. I've made 10 updates to the iPhone version of our Explore Shanghai map this year alone. Running a multilingual site - all information is in English and Chinese - can also be a challenge, particularly when you're not that adept with one of the languages. Visitors to the site are immensely helpful in making suggestions, or rapidly pointing out when I've made a mistake.

One thing that stands out about your website is the lack of advertising. How do you keep it running?

I have a full-time job at ReignDesign and they've been very flexible about allowing me to pursue my own interests. ExploreMetro and the iPhone apps are still a labor of love for me; I'm passionate about providing the best user experience rather than trying to extract as much money as possible from the sites. I don't want to spoil the experience on the sites with poorly thought out ads. Recently, the launch of our iPhone apps (available for $1 each) has provided an extra source of revenue for ExploreMetro.

You have a new map of the Tokyo Subway coming online this year; do you have future plans for expansion?

My plan for world domination is, of course, a secret, but my next target cities are Seoul and Taipei. There are also scores of first and second tier cities in China that are currently building metros, so I think I'm going to be busy.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

blog comments powered by Disqus