Home Subway Maps What purpose a subway map?

What purpose a subway map?

by Benjamin Kabak

The current subway map iteration of Manhattan is shown here on top of the new version.

With the MTA set to introduce a new version of its subway map over the next few weeks, New Yorkers who follow these sorts of changes have been debating the purpose of a subway map. On Friday, I noted how the MTA has struggled to balance the design of the subway map with its geographical purpose. During the Vignelli years, geography took a backseat to design while in the post-1979 world, geography has been the driving force behind The Map.

In today’s Times, Design columnist Steve Heller explores the evolution of the subway map and the MTA’s attempts at getting this iconic image just right. I’ll excerpt the good parts:

Although Mr. Vignelli’s stylized, diagrammatic map earned its place in the pantheon of postwar design — the collection of the Museum of Modern Art — it has fostered considerable debate about its heretical abstractions and is cited by design historians as one of Modernism’s most fabulous failures. While failing to cater to the public’s needs, its colored linear motif nonetheless clearly and rationally conveyed the fundamental distinction of which subway line is which. By simplifying the geographical details, the map may have looked less like a conventional map and more like an electrical schematic, but it forced the eye to see only the essentials. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Or maybe it was right on time — but the public failed to recognize it.

Its replacement in 1979, a more traditional topographical version, reintroduced all the basic map conventions (including blue water) and, most important, the New York City street grid. Yet the circulatory look of the map not only lacked the aesthetic flair of the Vignelli classic, it also junked up the graphical way-finding composition by reintroducing thinner and more serpentine route lines and a mass of smaller landmark details. Making Manhattan and the boroughs more representational probably helped users recognize their locales and destinations, but it also injected a labored look to the entire document.

The revision in 1998 added even more information, including free transfer points and alternate bus service, but once again reduced the size of the colored lines and route numbers. Users adapt to almost anything over time, and adjusting to the more cluttered composition was no exception. But that should not be the determinant of good design. While the Vignelli map may not have been the most versatile or adjustable given changes in the subway system, the ’79 and ’98 maps did not solve any of the aesthetic woes.

The new map, says Heller, “does indeed reduce the level of visual noise to a more tolerable level.” It is not, however, “as great a design achievement as it might be. Less isn’t always more, but as long as the Transit Authority is married to including all the details, it will take more than plumping up Manhattan to make a beautiful and functional map.”

The problem remains the battle over function. Should a subway map attempt to show accurate geographical representations of subway lines as New York’s attempts to do or should it show schematic route maps that give passengers a sense of direction slightly removed from geography as London’s and Paris’ does? Until the MTA and its map designers have a better answer for that question, the map will remain a bit cluttered, and it will feel perhaps comfortable in the clutter even if its geographical reliability isn’t 100 percent.

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Marc Shepherd June 2, 2010 - 12:22 pm

Until the MTA and its map designers have a better answer for that question…

I’d say that they have answered it emphatically, but the Times‘s Heller simply wanted it to come out another way.

The Vignelli map was abandoned for some pretty concrete reasons, which remain valid today. The MTA compromised the clarity of the 1979 map by adding too much information, and apparently the revision (of which I have not yet seen a full-size copy) takes some baby steps back towards the original idea. But the basic soundness of the 1979 map is not really in much dispute.

Bear in mind that a full re-design, even if that’s what the MTA wanted and needed, would be a vastly more expensive and complex proposition. In the current financial climate, the MTA would be justly criticized for taking on a such a clearly unnecessary project.

Mark L June 2, 2010 - 12:25 pm

I, for one, appreciate geographically-linked transit maps. I care about where I come out and its relative distance from my destination, or locating nearby transit access points by location. Pretty maps that have no connection to the real world outside of the transit system don’t serve that need.

Rhywun June 2, 2010 - 6:48 pm

That’s what the neighborhood maps in every station are for.

The subway map is useless for the purpose you’re trying to use it for. There’s no constant scale in any direction so you cannot use it to measure distance.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 7:56 pm

And Google Maps should now serve your purpose.

Craig Robinson June 2, 2010 - 12:26 pm

I enjoy the underlay of the NY geography; as a visitor, it makes it a lot easier to see if it is worth walking or using the subway. Just ask any Londoner about tourists taking the Tube from Charing Cross to Embankment (a 2 minute walk, but probably 7-10 minutes from station entrance to station entrance if you use the Tube). While the NY map isn’t as easy to read as the Tube map, I’ve never had any problems with it in practice.

Benjamin Kabak June 2, 2010 - 12:28 pm

Great point about London’s map. The Beck Tube schematic seems to encourage more transit trips that don’t make much sense, especially in the Zone 1 areas.

Mike Fierman June 2, 2010 - 12:43 pm

in the late 70’s I moved to NYS to go to Bard College.I clearly remember the Vignelli map and how frustrating it was to a kid who was trying to find his way around the city to learn where everything was. that map was only good for point to point navigation. I can also remember when the new (haha) one came out in 79. Only my friends who were the most style oriented disliked it.

Brandon June 2, 2010 - 1:19 pm

I dont like the color of the parks on the new one.

Russell Warshay June 7, 2010 - 12:31 pm

It is the same color as puke on Family Guy

Joe June 2, 2010 - 1:20 pm

Personally, I think that the KickMap is the best available on the market today. The regular map could get tricky as I had plenty of tourists ask me what train to take. By using a separate line for every train, the kickmap simplifies the trunklines.

John June 2, 2010 - 3:03 pm

I completely agree. The result of the kickmap concept is a very clear indication of what lines go where, while remaining about as truthful to geography as the existing MTA map (meaning, of course, it does a good job pretending).

Maximus June 3, 2010 - 12:24 pm

Ditto. The KickMap is a brilliant balancing act between Vignelli-style abstraction and geographic accuracy. It seems to capture the best of both approaches.

Erik June 2, 2010 - 1:32 pm

Locals will usually have a sense of where they need to go and will use a subway map as a refresher (e.g., I am in Union Square and need to go to Astoria – was it the R or the N that I need to take?).

Tourists will usually have a more detailed guidebook with them that gives them the level of detail that they need to navigate.

It’s the middle ground of new local arrivals that benefits the most from a well-designed map that has a certain degree of geographical representation. When I moved to NYC in 1999 I had one of my dad’s old Vignelli maps and couldn’t make that much sense of it. “The Map” helped me out tremendously.

New York will always have a higher percentage of “new locals” than most other cities. It’s the nature of the beast. Therefore we need a map with some geography in it.

Kid Twist June 2, 2010 - 3:20 pm

The big problem with the current map is that it fails at one critically important thing: Helping passengers decide which train to take.

If I’m going to, say, Zerega Avenue, I don’t care how many times the tracks curve before I get there or how many pretty green parks I pass; I just want to know if I have to take the 4, the 5 or the 6, and what the sequence of stations is between here and my destination.

This map makes it hard to quickly spot the correct path beteen two stations in the subway system, something a simple diagram would do very nicely. I know this is a problem because I’ve met several people who learned the hard way that the 5 doesn’t stop at Yankee Stadium.

Rhywun June 2, 2010 - 6:57 pm

Well said. I just want the map to clearly represent the service. Nothing else. The fact that the Vignelli map did that poorly doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but the public rejected it and so we got stuck with 30+ years of crude, misleading geography and heaping gobs of distracting excess. The new map at least takes a couple steps to reduce the clutter. But you’re right – it still takes a more study than should be necessary to figure out the actual service.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 7:15 pm

Not to add more information overload to the map, but an idea: would an index of stations be more useful for tourists and/or locals to the New York system? The map once had a grid along its border.

Rhywun June 2, 2010 - 10:13 pm

I was thinking about that too. Maybe put it on the reverse?

Alon Levy June 2, 2010 - 5:41 pm

The purpose of a map is to make it clear how you get between places. Geographically accurate or close to it is best; showing frequent bus routes in addition to subway routes is even better. (Yes, yes, it would clutter the map to let people know that there’s a faster way from Astoria to East Harlem than taking the N to the 4. Spare me.)

JPN June 2, 2010 - 8:02 pm

Yes, overburden the existing frequent buses. There are many frequent bus routes in the city. Would you care to say exactly which ones are you thinking of?

Alon Levy June 3, 2010 - 3:54 am

It depends on what the MTA wants to achieve. Most cities that do this have a set of standards for hours of operation and minimum off-peak frequency. In New York, this standard could be made stringent, on the order of 5 minutes between the two peaks and 10 minutes in the evening. Alternatively, it could follow Boston, which just includes the 10 busiest bus lines.

In many cases, it makes it easier to avoid Midtown, reducing crowding where it counts. You’d much rather people took the M60 between Queens and Harlem instead of the 4/5.

JPN June 3, 2010 - 11:08 am

For people living on the BMT Astoria Line, a subway-M60-subway (a two-fare trip for non-unlimited ride users) may be a good choice, but using the BMT Astoria Line from other parts of Queens is quite convoluted. And unpredictable RFK bridge traffic and high airport O & D ridership would discourage me from taking the M60 regularly. Bus-subway transfers are also time- and distance- consuming compared to subway-subway transfers. Astoria Boulevard station is not one of the simpler stations because it straddles the Grand Central Parkway.

Back to the ramifications on including frequent bus service in the subway map, forget that it introduces clutter for a second. The frequent bus service in New York City has got to have higher ridership than other American cities that have frequent bus service. Buses have a greatly lower capacity than subway trains and if you want to provide more service, you’ll require more buses and more operators on one of the largest bus systems in the world. That’s why I say you’re going to overburden the bus system if you want to promote it on the subway map.

Alon Levy June 3, 2010 - 1:26 pm

Ironically, the most frequent buses in the city are those where higher frequency is literally impossible. At higher frequency than once every 3-4 minutes, buses hopelessly bunch.

Encouraging people to take the bus more often could increase bus dwells, which would reduce speed and thus require more operators. But it could just as well discourage them from taking taxis, which would reduce congestion and increase bus speed. It could also induce trips that wouldn’t be taken otherwise, increasing revenue. The most frequent bus lines in the city are profitable if you only include avoidable costs such as fuel and labor, and not also attributed costs such as administration.

You need to ask yourself whether you want people taking more trips or fewer trips on NYCT.

JPN June 4, 2010 - 11:37 am

I don’t know much about sociology, but the ways of convincing people to change their mode of transportation are different for each person. I’m afraid a majority of people would not work out the logic as you have. And some people just don’t like a communal transit experience.

J B June 7, 2010 - 6:52 am

The way most people change their mode of transit is the same. They will choose whichever mode is faster, cheaper or reliable. If people who need to get from Astoria to Harlem are aware that there is a service between those places that is cheaper than taxis but faster than the subway, many of them will choose that service. This isn’t sociology, it’s common sense- unless people you know take longer subway rides for fun.

JPN June 7, 2010 - 1:08 pm

True for those who have no problem with public transportation, but try to convince a person who is steadfast to his/her car to use the subway or bus on a regular basis, how hard is that to do?

J B June 7, 2010 - 10:31 pm

Where is your evidence that such people make a significant portion of the population? And rather than public transport versus car, the question should be public transport and however much money and time it saves you versus car. If people are faced with saving, say, half an hour a day they may find that the extra time outweighs their love of their cars.
Anyway, this doesn’t have to be targeted at drivers; it can be targeted at those who would take taxis or more roundabout routes. Decreasing crowding on the 4/5/6 is also a worthy goal.

JPN June 8, 2010 - 4:28 am

Does it matter how significant a percentage that is? I made the statement because American cities are generally car culture-obsessed, and while New York is the great exception to that rule, Wikipedia says 25% out of 3.7 million people who work in NYC commute alone by car, including those commuting from outside NYC. (If that figure is wrong, correct me.) “The majority” I am taking about is out of those ~1 million people and I am postulating that I wouldn’t assume that people will make the instant decision to change modes only on the basis of saving time and money. What about other personal factors like comfort, privacy and total control of schedules (i.e. not having to worry if the bus is late)?

I don’t know why we are continuing to debate about the Astoria to [East] Harlem commute (which I feel applies to few people, by the way; Bronx to Astoria may be more worthy debate)? But to follow up on including bus routes on the subway map, along with the SBS routes as previously mentioned, I can now see the value of including bus routes that cross the East River bridges and the Verrazano Bridge only for the reason to provide more choices for interborough travel and not solely on frequency.

digamma June 2, 2010 - 8:58 pm

People always debate this as if the Vignelli map is the same as the Beck Underground map. They are really very different.

Beck never had four different lines join up and awkwardly turn curves together. Even though the Northern Line has more confusing branches than, say, the BMT Broadway Line, Beck combined them all into one trunk line, like NYC’s 1979 map. Beck also used more distinguishable colors than Vignelli’s confusing palette. Following the BMT Broadway Line or the West Side IRT through Manhattan on Vignelli’s map made my head hurt.

Rhywun June 2, 2010 - 10:25 pm

The fantasy maps in my head do the same thing as Beck’s map: drop the letters and numbers and combine branches. N/Q/R/W become the ‘Broadway’ line, etc. I have no illusion the public would ever accept such an arrangement. Plus, it still ignores the rather crucial express vs. local service which maps like the Kick and Vignelli maps address in a radically different way from most others.

Kid Twist June 3, 2010 - 11:40 am

Vignelli didn’t choose the colors. The color scheme on the first Vignelli map (1972) first showed up on a very different map in 1967.

It could be worse. Prior to ’67, the map used only three colors: black for the IRT, red for the IND and green for the BMT. Try following your way around on this 1966 edition:

bob June 3, 2010 - 5:43 pm

Personally I find the 1966 map easier than the Vignelli map. But to make use of the 1966 map you have to pay careful attention to the line and terminus and service type to really know where you’re going. People very familiar with the system can handle this but it’s too much for everyone else. So they tried to simplify it by using route names…previously some lines had them (IND) others less so.

But the number of routes gets too complex (does anywhere do as much branching as NYC?) so I think emphasizing the trunk lines works as a compromise.

To me the point of the map is to get from A to B, and if it can provide some geographic information outside the system, so much the better. Vignelli may be artistic, but to me it was a clear failure. The replacement worked much better. All the bus transfer boxes later added were well intentioned, but too much clutter. This is a step back to a more optimal design.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 9:09 pm

For all the people who like the current Michael Hertz map vs. the Vignelli map vs. the KickMap vs. others, it’s clear that any future map that unites and is accepted by all of the divisive camps will be nothing short of heaven.

JAR June 3, 2010 - 1:23 am

True. But WE aren’t the target for a map – probably don’t really need it most of the time. For those unfamiliar with NYC geography and the system and its nuances (especially local vs express, something most transit systems don’t have), Kickmap wins because it visualizes the information.

Anon256 June 3, 2010 - 9:13 am

I think Joseph Brennan’s subway diagram at http://www.columbia.edu/~brenn.....waymap.gif is a good compromise between clarity and detail (though the commuter rail lines should be less prominent). While schematic, it remains true enough to geography to not seem counterintuitive.

digamma June 3, 2010 - 3:13 pm

That Brennan map is nice.

Where all these maps fail is representing the differences between night and day and weekday and weekend. How do you get to the Museum of Natural History? You take the B or the C. Except at night. Except during most weekends.

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