Home Subway Maps For the new map, a move away from geography

For the new map, a move away from geography

by Benjamin Kabak

To clean up the background clutter, the newest subway map has eliminated some minor streets, Alphabet City.

Whenever I write about subway maps, my pieces or the comments that follow inevitably turn toward a debate on form vs. function. Should a subway map, I’ve wondered, aid riders navigate the city above or simply provide a more artistic schematic view of the train routes? Both views have their merits, and the best practical maps strike a balance between the two.

When the MTA issued a quiet revision to its map earlier this map, I noted how the MTA has moved toward a simplified map. As the authority said to me, “To continue to build on earlier clutter reduction, we’ve removed some streets and cemeteries that were not directly served by the subway.” It seems that the MTA’s approach is to overlay the subway routes on a rough outline of the city grid.

Earlier this week, Michael Grynbaum at The Times took a closer look at the map’s changes and found some interesting stories that illuminate the origins of the current map. Grynbaum picks Charlton St. in the West Village. I’ve lived in New York for my entire life, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you where Charlton St. is. For some reason, though, it was, until recently, on the subway map.

Amusingly enough, not enough residents of Charlton St. noticed its presence on the subway map. “I never noticed that,” Richard Blodgett, president of the Charlton Street Block Association, said. “Maybe I’d seen it and not thought much about it. I’ve certainly never heard anybody in the neighborhood discuss that.” But now it’s gone, and Grynbaum recounts the story determining the streets that cracked the map:

Members of the design committee that created the map in the late 1970s recalled conversations with the tourism bureau and a survey of leading maps at the time. But the general approach was summed up by John Tauranac, the committee’s chairman: “A lot of it was seat of the pants.”

“The whole purpose of putting in what could be considered ancillary streets was to give people a hint of where they are in relation to subway stations,” Mr. Tauranac said. “My memory doesn’t serve me well enough to include whether there was discussion over whether to include Charlton, King or Vandam.”

Michael Hertz, who also sat on the committee, concurred. “Sometimes we put stuff down almost arbitrarily, if we thought we had room for it,” he said. As for Charlton, “We could have flipped a coin and put the next street in.” Personal preferences, Mr. Hertz said, had no bearing on the decision: “No one said, ‘I want that street in because my grandmother lives there.’”

As Grynbaum notes, Charlton St. isn’t the only one to draw the short straw in this redesign. As Grynbaum notes, in Manhattan, Greenwich St., Bank St., Madison St. and Avenues A, B and D are all a victim of the map cuts while Warren Ave., Laconia Ave. and Boston Road in the Bronx have met their demise. Brooklyn’s Third Ave. and Columbia St. are but a map memory, and 20th Ave. in Astoria and 59th St. in Queens are off the map.

On the latest version of the subway map, Astoria ends at Ditmas Boulevard.

The end result is something far easier to read. With fewer white lines distracting the viewer, the map draws more attention to the subway routes, and that, after all, is its primary purpose. At the same time, though, it becomes a less useful tool for those who want to use the map to navigate above ground as well. Does Astoria end with the subway map and the N and Q trains at Ditmars Boulevard? Is there even a New York Ave.? Is the next major street east of First Avenue simply the FDR Drive? Alphabet City, you are no more. Even Charlton St., the western part of Prince St. that once hosted exits from the IND’s Spring St. station, will fade from our cartographic memory.

The form vs. function battle is one the MTA has been waging with its subway maps since the days of Vingelli in 1972. Slowly, slowly, the authority is moving toward a representation with the outlines of the boroughs and only a handful of key streets. As the grid fades away, this new map is a-OK for subway navigation. Any use beyond that is sure to get the budding map-reader dazed and confused.

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14 comments

Kai B October 12, 2011 - 11:56 pm

As I was reading the Times article I developed the theory around the Charlton Street being there because of the former exits of the Spring Street station. I was feeling rather proud of myself.

…Then I got to the bottom of the article and saw that not only did someone else have that idea, but, it’s probably not related since those exits seems to have closed much earlier.

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John-2 October 13, 2011 - 12:35 am

You’d probably have to go back to the late 1970s to figure out the how’s and why’s of what streets were included in the original revision from the Vignelli design. It still could be certain streets were there for ‘legacy’ purposes, if they once had a station exit (Charlton) or a line (Third Ave. in Brooklyn) running on them.

The new map does maintain more fidelity to real-world geography than the revived Vignelli online Weekender, while a lot of the streets being phased out can still be deduced by logic (If you’ve got Fourth and Seventh Avenue stops on the F/G lines, you can probably figure out where Third Avenue is), though the total removal of Alphabet City may get a squawk or two. Maybe if the MTA ever puts that Avenue A exit in on the L train, they can get at least one street back.

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Farro October 13, 2011 - 1:24 am

Third avenue actually is pretty major…

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Sara October 13, 2011 - 5:40 am

Be truthful, Ben–you once lived in DC!

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Erik October 13, 2011 - 8:46 am

It’s a bit of a shame in my opinion. I am a subway nerd AND a map nerd, so I love looking at all kinds of subway maps… I know the system very well but will still sit and stare at it in the station while waiting for a train.

However, I remember when I first moved to NYC 12 years ago, and when various friends moved into town over the years. The hardest thing to figure out is: when you are at point A and someone tells you to get to “point B”, where exactly is point B and what subway line is it closest to? Then you need to figure out exactly where point A is and whether that line is anywhere nearby, etc.

This new map makes it a lot harder to solve these combination geography/routing mysteries.

Of course, this was all in the days before smartphones, so the printed subway map is losing it relevance already. Now there are many more tools to help new riders.

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ferryboi October 13, 2011 - 9:28 am

In every other city I’ve visited that has a subway (DC, Philly, LA, Paris, Boston, Chicago) the subway maps are schematic, with almost no true representation of the street grid (if any) in that city. And I’ve managed to get around all those towns (and NYC in the Vignelli years) without getting terribly lost. If I did get lost, I found my way back quickly and remembered not to do that again.

NYC is the ONLY city that feels the need to use a georgraphiclly “correct” version, though it too is a problem since many streets/landmarks are not represented. About every tourist I see on the subway has a handout map that looks like it was provided by the NYC Tourism Bureau (or some such agency) that is very geographically detailed and includes subway info. If they need detailed subway directions, they can look at maps posted in stations, on cars, or in many cases, just ask a NYer. It really ain’t that hard.

As far as Charlton St, I’m thinking that about 0.00% of tourists want or need to go there (though it is a lovely block).

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Christopher October 13, 2011 - 11:33 am

SF does too. And even more geographically correct. For their very systems. Still confused by how people use the map, I guess maybe from living in other cities, my first question is: what subway stop and then when I get there I look for a local area map. It would make more sense for NYC transit to have a schematic map and better local area maps at every station and even on the platform. But that of course is just how I use the subway. So you know? BEND TO MY WILL.

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Alon Levy October 13, 2011 - 11:35 am

The Paris map is not purely schematic like in London or Washington. It doesn’t show streets, but it’s fairly geographically accurate – less so than New York, more so than London and other cities famous for their schematics.

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Jerrold October 13, 2011 - 11:54 am

As I said the other day in the dialogue about this subject,
since when is the subway map for the uae of tourists only?

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Jerrold October 13, 2011 - 11:57 am

Of course, I meant to say “use”. My typo made it look like I was talking about tourists from the United Arab Emirates.

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Andrew October 16, 2011 - 1:02 pm

It’s not, but tourists are certainly among the heavier users of the subway map.

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Eric October 13, 2011 - 2:57 pm

Where were all you schematic lovers a couple days ago in the Vignelli post?

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Matthias October 17, 2011 - 12:21 pm

I’ve always wondered why the green rectangle for Mount Morris/Marcus Garvey Park extends all the way to Park Av when the eastern park border is actually at Madison.

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rick October 20, 2011 - 1:23 pm

Rikers Island was removed too. Not the landmass but the name of the prison has been removed.

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