Home Asides On the history of subway maps

On the history of subway maps

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the last year, I’ve compiled an extensive collection of historical New York City subway maps dating back to the late 1940s. It’s fascinating to see how the subway map has evolved along with the geographical representations of the city. In my opinion, today’s map is far too cluttered to be absolutely usable, and the pinnacle of subway representation in New York with an eye toward both geography and ease of map use would involve a combination of the Vignelli map and the 1979 Michael Hertz Association version reworking. Once I have some spare time and access to a good flat-bed scanner, I’ll be writing a series of posts on the subway map over time.

Today in amNew York, Heather Haddon examined the history behind the evolution of our current subway map. She traces the move from the Vignelli map to the Hertz version and explains how the MTA’s color-coded system, still in place today, came to be. The current version is an outgrowth of Hertz’s 1979 rendering, and last year, it celebrated its 30th anniversary. “It’s an absolute work of art and very clear,” Peter Lloyd, a U.K. author writing a history of the subway map, said. It’s clarity might be lacking today, but the old maps are definitely works of art.

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Noel January 28, 2010 - 1:31 pm

How about publishing your own map? Using crowd sourcing and making it mashupable will obviate the need for the MTA to use resources for this (although they’ll still need to provide the info (eg schedules, etc)).

Daniel Howard January 28, 2010 - 5:59 pm

Along these lines, as a personal project, I made my own map of San Francisco’s transit system. It is not the greatest map in the world, but I made it Open Source so if someone did want to riff on it, they could:


My approach was “what could I design for a 15×15 inch paper” . . . there are other web sites that are into mashups and all, the trick with a map, ESPECIALLY the NY subway map, is to selectively compress the useful information into something legible.

I was hoping in the above link to read more about the rationale for the colors.

Sometimes I think a NY subway map would be a fun project but I think I would go insane. 🙂


Russell Warshay January 28, 2010 - 2:13 pm Reply
Benjamin Kabak January 28, 2010 - 2:15 pm

Yup. I wrote about the Vignelli revisions in 2008 as well.

Russell Warshay January 28, 2010 - 2:25 pm

You’re on top of things!

Kid Twist January 28, 2010 - 2:39 pm

I’m partial to the Vignelli map that I grew up with, so I never really thought the current map was all that clear or artful. But at least it wasn’t a cluttered mess when it first came out. Today’s map is an eyesore with type at all sorts of angles and arrows and boxes all over the place. It looks like Pop-Up Videos gone wild. Plus, a few years ago they deceided to clip Staten Island out of some other map and just slap it in the corner.

Josh January 28, 2010 - 2:44 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, I didn’t see that page of AMNY on my way in to work this morning.

pete January 28, 2010 - 2:44 pm

The maps without major streets and geography behind them make them useless unless you have prior directions. Subways live in neighborhoods with streets, there is no subway oriented development in NYC. You live on _____ Street near _____ Blvd, not at Federal Courthouse Circle Station. NYC has no underground cities (except for Rockafellar Center) and no direct connections to the subway the way other cities with newer metros are (Montreal). The current MTA map design is cluttered with its bus connections, but otherwise excellent in my opinion.

Benjamin Kabak January 28, 2010 - 2:47 pm

So question: Are other cities’ subway maps that don’t feature much in the way of local geography — London, Paris, etc. — useful to you or not?

The problem I have with the NYC Subway Map right now besides the clutter is the way it is confused about its own geographical purpose. It’s not too scale and doesn’t feature landmarks but does feature just enough in terms of street labels and some landmarks to make it confusing for those who don’t know where to go once they leave the subway.

AK January 28, 2010 - 3:34 pm

I don’t mind it not being to scale, for two reasons, one related to economics, the other related to history.

1. Locals rarely are falling over each other to look at the map. We know where we’re going or we check ahead of time if we don’t. Tourists, on the other hand, constantly need the map. Tourists are a major part of our economy and they are overwhelmingly based in Manhattan. Additionally, the CBD of Midtown, or the Downtown CBD, if drawn to scale on a subway map, would be incredibly cluttered and difficult to read, at least when compared to the lines in outer boroughs (with teh notable exception of the Jamaica bound trains).

2. The map has such deep-seeded historical and cultural significance to this City. It’s about more than functionality– its about a vision of our City. Now I may get in trouble with some of you for this comment, but I think it is unquestionable that the center of New York City’s history, culture, and politics is the island of Manhattan. It should be “outsized” on the map because it is the center of our civic identity. Of course, many (heck, most) people would not want to live in Manhattan, and those people are likely to describe themselves as being from “The Bronx” or “Queens” rather than “New York.” But even for that set of epople, Manhattan– its economy, history, etc– is an overwhelming influence in their lives.

pete January 28, 2010 - 4:59 pm

London and DC maps are utterly useless if you don’t have directions ahead of time (the destination station to use). But if you have the directions, you probably already know the metro routes to use. Estimating time on a map with stations an equal distance is impossible. The Rockaway route is the same as an 10 block station IRT line.

Sometimes I think the real scheme behind DC’s artsy minimalistic subway map was to get you to buy the $5 WMATA bus map that shows streets, geography and the Metro (you had to pay for the map some years ago).

Christopher January 28, 2010 - 5:44 pm

Well it’s partly difficult to use because there isn’t enough information about what streets are at each station. And the station names are cute, but too long and not related to the Streets.

But you can figure it out, I lived in DC for 5 years and used the system for 6 years before that, and never once had a problem with the map or bought the Bus Map. (Which now are on the new bus shelters, anyway.)

I don’t think that underground we have the same concept of the city. Paris, Beijing, London, Tokyo, DC, all use maps that are about the how the system works and unrelated to the cities above. Bus maps are different as you are traveling above ground and so you are actually looking at landmarks. Do you have trough using the electronic displays in the subway cars which are just linear? Of course not.

I think the current NY map has way too much visual clutter, and could be rationalized a lot. It needs to be rethought in terms of how bus information is presented. And I like the point about how the original map created in 79 allowed the map to be refolded just to include Manhattan. The current map has a lot of feature creep and usability wise that’s never a good thing.

Benjamin Kabak January 28, 2010 - 5:50 pm

In regards to ease of use, what no one has noted yet is that today’s map is gigantic in comparison to the 1979 map, the Vignelli map and all of its predecessors. It used to be possible to open the map and view the entire thing without spreading your arms. Now, it’s impossible. That’s a big problem in terms of usability in my opinion. Where is the pocket-sized NYC Subway map?

SEAN January 28, 2010 - 5:56 pm

Also remember the LIRR & MNR joint map is on the flip side.

mike hertz February 24, 2010 - 2:37 pm


You’re right on the money with your comments. When Vignelli’s map left the scene it was 7 years old and practically ‘virginal’. Mine has been around for 32 years now and is about 150 (people) years old.

It has been ‘improved’ by client’s marketing folks (added points of interest and neighborhood labels as part of station nomenclature), surface transit people (all those bus connection balloons), the presence of the commuter rail lines on the back and a million other tweaks that added detail, hopefully useful, to riders that would like to use one piece of paper to navigate a very complex system.

As I told Massimo in person at a recent AIGA event at Parsons, I used and enjoyed his map for 7 years, even doing the service revisions on the last published (1978) version. I love his work, thought his map was very useable, but non-New Yorkers just had a very different take.

Perhaps, one of these days I will put online analyses, comparisons and assessments, outlining attributes as well as flaws, of all the current maps out there including Calcagno, Jabbour and others. And I realize that my map has its problems compared to the original 1979 design.

Thanks for your positivity.

Michael Hertz,
Designer MTA Subway Map 1979-present

Scott E January 28, 2010 - 4:00 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Kick Map yet. I would think that a reasonable compromise between the two can be made.

The problem with the existing map is the overuse of labels. If I want to know how many stops are on the 2 train between Atlantic Avenue and Penn Station, I need to read the captions on each stop to see if the 2 stops there, and by the time I get to Manhattan, I’ve lost count. (When only certain trains at a station are ADA-accessible, the map becomes very tough to read).

The problem with the KickMap is that it’s too loud — it looks like an explosion at the Magic Marker factory. Thin the route lines a bit (but keep separate lines for each), de-emphasize (or remove) the neighborhood colors, use a paler blue for water, shrink the bullets at the line terminals, use a smaller, and consistent font for station names (and include labels like “St” and “Av”), and use the standard “wheelchair” symbol instead of a blue star, and you’ve got a map!

Some of the criticisms on the current map, I believe, are unfounded. I see nothing wrong with the curved lines (they’re almost a bit calming compared to the sharp angles of the Vignelli or KickMap) or the labels written at 45 degrees. I’d rather see slanted text than colliding text.

rhywun January 28, 2010 - 7:26 pm

All attempts at relating the subway to the streets above are doomed to fail because you can’t please everyone–which is what every other large system has figured out and therefore they don’t do it. There is no reason to turn the subway map into a poor substitute for a street map other than historical inertia, and continuing to do it because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is no reason to give up striving for something better.

Ed January 28, 2010 - 8:07 pm

I tend to agree with the criticisms of the minimalism of the London subway map design. You really need to have some idea of how long the distances between stops are and where they are located compared with where you want to go above ground. Design geeks love the London subway map because its pretty, but the truth is its just not very useful.

That said, some geographic distortion is called for to make areas where there is a tangle of subway lines, usually the center of the city, more readable.

And the current New York subway map is too cluttered. For a start, it should lose Staten Island (put a separate map for the SIR in the SIR stations!) and the bus information (how about a new bus map that is actually legible?).

Its probably also a good idea to show the individual lines -though using thin lines and avoiding the magic marker effect. Also the lines could be varied depending on whether they ran only rush hour, or normally but not nights or weekends. The current map uses a dotted line for the rush hour only portion of the M (or is it the J?) and that practice should be extended. If this is done, it might be possible to get rid of the chart with the small type at the bottom of the map.

Purpose & Design: A look at subway maps :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog January 29, 2010 - 1:19 am

[…] afternoon, in a discussion on the recent history of New York City’s subway, a discussion broke out on the best way to present a subway system. Should the map be purely […]

Alon Levy January 29, 2010 - 4:18 am

I’m partial to the pre-Vignelli maps, the ones that are perfectly geographical, with the colors coding for IRT, BMT, and IND lines. I lived too long in Singapore, where the maps are never geographically accurate, and where it’s difficult to locate stations or know whether a certain transfer saves you much time.

Eric January 29, 2010 - 10:18 am

What I don’t understand about the maps is how or why they change they name of a neighborhood that a subway stop is in.

The R at 95th Street and 4th Ave is referred to as being both in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge and the neighborhood of Fort Hamilton.

The MTA neighborhood maps on the wall of the station and MTA bus maps state that 95th and 4th is in Fort Hamilton while the current MTA Subway map and the trains themselves state that the station is in Bay Ridge.

Previous subway maps state that the 95th Street station is in Fort Hamilton.

Why the neighborhood name changes?

(Photos of the map/name/changes in the url attached to my name)

rhywun January 30, 2010 - 12:09 am

The answer is simple. Fort Hamilton–if anything–is a “sub-neighborhood” of Bay Ridge. Neighborhood names come and go, in every city, and Fort Hamilton is simply not a current name anymore. The idea that Bay Ridge “ends at 86th Street” is decades out of date. It is more accurate to say that Bay Ridge extends all the way to the southern shore of Brooklyn while the region south of 86th Street was historically known as “Fort Hamilton”. In fact, “Bay Ridge” used to extend into part of what is now known as “Dyker Heights”. But the Verrazano Bridge approach put an end to that. Times change, and The Map changes with them.


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