'Metro map service provides instant access to unique information'
It's a headline as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.
When it first ran in 1986 just inside the front cover of the Metro News, "instant access to unique information" had to be the hook that pulled the reader in.
Yet in the pre-geographic information system (GIS) era of mapmaking at Metro in the late '80s, "instant access" most likely referred to the turnaround time from paying for and receiving a Metro map.
Today, immediate access to Metro's regional GIS data – known as the Regional Land Information System or RLIS – means nothing less than the ability to download more than 100 map layers at the RLIS Discovery website from anywhere with Internet access.
In an age when the instantaneous delivery of data to handheld devices is recasting innovative technology into an everyday expectation, the very idea of drawing the boundaries of the region's urban and rural reserves by hand is, well – unimaginable.
Metro mapmaking 101
Metro's map service began in the late 1960s with the original Columbia Region Association of Governments planning organization before it combined with the Metropolitan Service District to form Metro. Planners produced maps and CRAG shared them with other governments. When Metro absorbed CRAG, the map service continued.
Alan Holsted, GIS program supervisor who began working on maps as a member of the graphics department, has witnessed and, in many instances, pioneered the evolution of mapmaking in his 38 years at Metro.
"GIS changed everything," says Holsted, who recently retired from Metro. After working in the graphics department for 15 years, he moved to the Data Resource Center along with the maps and spent the next 23 years displaying information digitally instead of with pen and ink.
While good design skills are as essential for today's cartographer and GIS specialist as they were in the early days of mapmaking at Metro, the other skillsets required have changed.
"The most important skillset for a cartographer to have after design skills used to be hand lettering ability. Once RLIS came along, it became working with databases," says Holsted.
The history of mapmaking at Metro
As a way to capture the institutional knowledge of mapmaking at Metro, Holsted put together a historical perspective of the tools, techniques and processes used to create maps from the days of hand drawing right up to the launch of RLIS.
While the 29-page document describes the evolution of the visual display of geographic information through description and archival images, it's also the story of the growth of Metro as an agency.
Maps produced by the Data Resource Center, whether rendered with pen and ink or data sets, help inform policy and land use decision-making at Metro. Early maps displayed regional information in one dimension without local detail. Today, RLIS data provides detail right down to the outline and height of most buildings in the Portland metropolitan area. Decision-making, if not always faster, is better informed.
Rapidograph, Leroy lettering, tape
This is not to say early mapmaking tools weren't responsive to changing land use decisions. Expanding the urban growth boundary on a map of the region simply required a little more tape.
"The urban growth boundary was drawn with tape and Leroy lettering on a mylar," says Holsted, "then photographically combined with an arterial base map."
Chartpak tape was used to add thicker lines to maps while the finer details were added using a Rapidograph, a refillable ink pen with a fine tip suited for laying down dense, even-flowing lines on mylar. While most cartography was done on matte mylar – a polyester film that received ink well – clear mylar was often used for meeting presentations.
Lettering was most often done with a Leroy set of alphabet templates for tracing letters onto maps. Press-on letters were used for titles and headings. In some instances, county names were applied to display maps using one of the simplest and most enduring tools – the felt tip pen.
Partnership builds capacity
While the greatest difference between maps then and now could easily be imagined as level of detail, major advances were often achieved with one project, when the sheer need for greater detail pushed cartographers beyond what they imagined their tools – or they – could do.
"Whenever we wanted to show the complete street system of the region, we had to resort to using a base map created from U.S. Geological Survey quadrants," says Holsted. "The problem was we couldn't make our own updates and there weren't many street names on what we had."
So they drew in their own street lines. TriMet then approached them about adding street names and together, they created a route map for TriMet buses and a detailed street map with a street name index and bike map for Metro use.
Today, screens take the place of mylar for displaying geographic information and the print version of Metro News has been replaced with a scrolling newsfeed on the agency's home page. But Holsted doesn't see an end to the changes anytime soon.
"We'll all be using new techniques that make today's methods look antique," he predicts.