Home Service Advisories Designing the ideal subway map

Designing the ideal subway map

by Benjamin Kabak


Someone can always design a better subway map. (Image from Kickmap)

Among the subway literati, the map is always a hot topic of conversation. Unlike the standard Tube map or the WMATA map, the MTA’s subway map represents an effort to bring street-level reality to the cartography of the subway.

Again and again, MTA officials talk about how they like the subway map because it incorporates the city’s geography with that of the subway. Want to know how far it is from 10th Ave. to the 14th St. stop on the A, C or E? You can eyeball it with the current map.

Today, Gothamist sat down with Michael Hertz, the designer of the current map in use now for 30 years. The interview is great for people who love subway map minutiae (like I do). Hertz talks about designing the map within the limits of the geography of New York City.

The problems with putting the system on a map that has to fold into someone’s pocket are obvious. How do you cram all of the stops into Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn while maintaining some semblance of geographical accuracy? How do you show the differences between daytime local service and express service while including a bit about nighttime service changes in a way that tourists and people not overly familiar with the subway system can understand?

During the course of the interview, Gothamist can’t help but ask Hertz the question about the map his replaced in the 1970s: the infamous Massimo Vignelli map that distorted New York City geography. Every now and then, the Vignelli map comes up in subway map discussion as it did in The Times last September. Hertz, while discussing the origins of the colors of the New York City subway lines, launches into the typical diatribe about Vignelli’s map that often concludes with a condemnation of a square representation of Central Park. While everyone knows Central Park isn’t square, to fit the subways on his map, Vigenlli made it square. No one liked that much.

Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite new map Kickmap – pictured above next to the current map – came up as well. Again, The Times comes into play as they introduced Kickmap to a wider audience in an article in April. Kickmap, designed by Eddie Jabbour, is a subway-centric map. While attempting to adhere to some level of geographical accuracy, Jabbour’s iteration attempts to highlight more subway information. He tries to show track routes and clearly-delineated express stops.

Hertz’s response to Kickmap: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rightly so, he levels the same criticisms toward Kickmap as Vignelli’s map received in the 1970s. It doesn’t allow for easily understandable service changes, and it doesn’t help people place the subway within the context of the city at large.

The interview is quite interesting, and if you want to be overwhelmed with subway map trivia, check it out.

Meanwhile, it’s Friday afternoon, and the subway doesn’t help us understand the crazy service changes one bit. That’s where the MTA’s website comes in handy.

The N trains are running local from Manhattan into Brooklyn at all times. Manhattan-bound trains are running over the bridge from DeKalb to Canal this weekend.

The West Side IRT lines are a bit funky this weekend. And the A has service changes up the wazoo.

For a full overview, check out the MTA’s list of weekend service changes. Safe travels this hot weekend.

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Marsha August 3, 2007 - 4:48 pm

Very interesting summary of the interview. I cannot believe the current map has been around for 30 years.

Sugar Hill August 3, 2007 - 6:36 pm

G! The G to Stillwell!

Todd August 5, 2007 - 3:51 pm

…A good portion of them stare at or consult your map while on their journey…

I love the current map. I would be very upset if they were to change it.

That interview was very interesting!

KidTwist August 6, 2007 - 12:01 pm

I loved the Vignelli map. It’s the map I used to learn my way around when I was a kid and it’s still the mental image I consult when I’m trying to decide how to get somewhere. Although I admit, I have been waiting a long time for that QJ train to show up. Hmmm.

Angus Grieve-Smith August 6, 2007 - 1:31 pm

That Vignelli map is nuts! The G train station at Court Square and the E/V station at 23rd/Ely are a block apart and now connected with a free transfer and a moving sidewalk, but on that map it looks like they’re miles apart, at least as far apart as the Court Square station is from the Metropolitan Avenue terminal on the M line.

Jason August 10, 2007 - 10:36 am

I like the current map, Im a realist. I like things on maps built as close as possible to scale, while still maintainting a good look for people with bad eyes. One might be able to make it better but the one proposed there should be for seinor citzens only.

Tomás November 8, 2007 - 12:07 pm

I also loved the Vignelli map! (It’s the first one I remember). But certainly, it didn’t show the distances with accuracy, and I find the current map really good for this matters. Anyway, people from outside New York find the current maps really great and recognizable!

Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways » Blog Archive » Men’s Vogue calls on Vignelli for a long-awaited update May 2, 2008 - 1:53 am

[…] map, as I’ve discussed in the past and Tina Kelley explored yesterday on City Room, was controversial from the moment it made its its […]

rhywun November 12, 2008 - 8:21 pm

The best map was the version previous to the current version, around 1979 to 1998. I realize it’s essentially the same as the current one (same designer, even?) but the graphics (and the colors) seem crisper and most importantly, it’s smaller and doesn’t have all those bus transfer boxes which are the worst feature of the current map. Those boxes make the map too big and cluttered.

With service changes, MTA refreshes its map :: Second Ave. Sagas May 28, 2010 - 1:52 am

[…] time as any to redesign its familiar map. While the authority hasn’t gone so far as to adopt Eddie Jabbour’s Kick Map or re-embrace Massimo Vingelli’s masterpiece, the MTA has refreshed the map. It now features […]

Debating subway map form and function :: Second Ave. Sagas December 8, 2010 - 1:32 am

[…] KickMap, which first came to my attention back in 2007 and is now available in app form for iPhones, tries to solve those problems. Jabbour’s map […]

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