I'm working on a map where the main theme is a railway line which runs vertically down the page. I've been wondering how to approach creating a scale bar for this map. To my eye a horizontal scale bar looks wrong in this case - it's not easily associated with the vertical content of the map, especially given that it's primary purpose would be to measure distances on the vertical railway line.

So I'm leaning toward a vertical scale bar, but I'm unable to find any literature regarding use of vertical scale bars, or even any examples of maps which utilise them.

Apart from the fact that no GIS packages capable of creating these out-of-the-box, is there any reason why using a vertical scale bar would not be appropriate?

Update: here's a quick mockup of a similar product to what I'm creating:

enter image description here

Update 2: more mockups based on @jbalk and @TDavis' ideas:

enter image description here

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    I've used them in the past, but usually in conjunction with a horizontal bar. Another option would be to use a border marked with distances on both axes. Another issue that is likely to be a problem with a vertical bar, it can make people think about elevations instead of distances
    – TDavis
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 1:16
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    "appropriate" implies "Primarily Opinion-based"... I say make the call! You're going to do it!!! Now ask 'how'... Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 1:58
  • @TDavis great idea about the frame based distances! I've added a mockup with this option. At first I was concerned that the vertical measurements could potentially be confused with chainage along the rail line, but your advice to include the measurements on the horizontal frame helps avoid this.
    – ndawson
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 3:04
  • FWIW, I usually prefer sideways text to be readable from the right rather than the left. (i.e. a 270 degree rotation rather than 90 degree), like how you have it on the left image of Update 2 mockups. Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 12:40
  • What will happen when the user pans the map and the railroad changes direction to horizontal - will you still see the vertical scale bar ? I prefer to stick to the standard horizontal bar.
    – user83403
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 9:58

5 Answers 5


The only reasons I can see why it would not be appropriate to use a vertical scale bar would be:

  • The audience does not want it or does not understand it
  • The audience associates the vertical scale with elevation

For a simple way to make a vertical scale bar (tested in ArcGIS) - create a horizontal scale bar, convert it to graphics, and rotate +-90 degrees.

UPDATE: More info

How to create a vertical scale bar in ArcMap?

This article talks about vertical scalebars, but it's for maritime charts.

This book has some information about using vertical scalebars.


  • Confusion with elevation was one concern I had. Got any tips on how that could be avoided?
    – ndawson
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:05
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    Maybe add a note that says - not to be confused with elevation; or - scale represents distance along the ground? Something like that.
    – jbalk
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:12
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    In QGIS Composer, you can create a scale bar and set rotation degrees under Item Properties. It remains as a scale bar. Possible disadvantage to both this approach and rotating an ArcGIS image is text is sideways. Although, perhaps the sideways text would remove the audience association with elevation? Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:12
  • @NateWanner I agree about the text. In my test with ArcGIS the vertically oriented text makes it more obvious that it's a distance scale, not elevation. In ndawson's example, the vertical bar looks more like elevation.
    – jbalk
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:14

One reason would be (I think it is mentioned in one of the comments) is that the vertical scale bar may not accurately represent the distance of the railway track. This would be due to the likelyhood of curves within the track itself.

A possible alternative to a vertical scale bar is to label the aggregated distance at each specific point of the track, especially between each station. However, this approach would require a bit more work than simply adding a vertical scale bar to the map:


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    This IS commonly used practice in transportation, names vary from country to country, e.g. chainage in New Zealand
    – FelixIP
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 20:09
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    This is a must have thing in design of any linear structure, roads,pipelines etc. I 'be been involved in a lot them and do not remember exception. I guess what is natural for engineers looks weird for cartographers and vice versa. To me vertical scale is non sense. I wish I can give you another +
    – FelixIP
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 9:57

Following on @jbalk's answer, the rotated text helps diminish the vertical scale "feel". Posted as an answer here since I couldn't put an image in comments on @jbalk's post.MS_Paint_Mockup

  • I immediately thought 'elevation' when seeing your original vertical mock up. The rotated text version looks like a scale bar and fits with the rail line /opinion
    – user2856
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:40
  • FWIW I prefer the original version with readable text, compared to this version with rotated text. You could add the label "Scale" to make it clearer Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 2:51
  • This is far better with rotated text. I agree with @Luke. Thanks for posting the screenshot Nate Wanner.
    – jbalk
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 3:33
  • Is rotating a dataframe an option?
    – FelixIP
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 4:34
  • @Nate Wanner - you can edit posts and add text and pictures. It just has to be approved before the changes take effect - this is the best way to add info to answers.
    – jbalk
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 4:42

It looks like you've already slightly rotated the dataframe. Increase it to 90 degrees. Either way, adding text labels along the line is the standard operating procedure, as pointed out by @FelixIP and @Joseph.


Everyone can make his own map by his own away, but if you want to be part of society there are some standards of maps. These standards are adjusted by related field geography, geodesy, geology, environmental, civil engineering .... etc. and all these fields use horizontal bar as standard it is globally.

You can make you spline standard

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