Home Subway Maps The drama — and mistakes — of the subway map

The drama — and mistakes — of the subway map

by Benjamin Kabak

Contrary to the subway map, West End Avenue does not end at 116th Street.

While the MTA draws the ire of millions of New Yorkers who endure packed trains and climbing fares, it often seems as though nothing quite captures the imagination of a dedicated subsection of straphangers quite like the subway map. From its design to its creation to its geographical accuracy (or lack thereof), New Yorkers are content to spend more time discussing the map than we rightly should. If this were a crime, I’d certainly be guilty of it.

Today’s tale of subway map woes comes to us from Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times. Not only does he focus on geographical inaccuracies but he delves into the soap opera behind the map’s creation. As subway stalwarts know, the current bastardized iteration of the subway map grew out of the efforts to discard the Massimo Vignelli map. Heralded as a piece of design art that suffered functionally, the Vignelli map was ushered out in a 1979 redesign that saw various stakeholders — including Michael Hertz and John Tauranac — have input on the new map.

Essentialy, Tauranac steered the committee overseeing the redesign while Hertz’s company was in charge of execution. Tauranac was in charge of geography; Hertz overlaying the system on a diagram of the city. Both parties duke it out over the map’s flaws and faults. Now, The Times’ focus on the errors has the two men warring again:

On the West Side of Manhattan, beginning near Lincoln Center and extending toward the campus of Columbia University, Broadway is seemingly misplaced. It is west of Amsterdam Avenue at West 66th Street when it should be east. It drifts toward West End Avenue near 72nd Street, where it should intersect with Amsterdam. It overtakes West End Avenue north of the avenue’s actual endpoint near West 107th Street, creating several blocks of fictitious Upper West Side real estate…

Many New Yorkers have undoubtedly noticed that the subway map has its geographic faults, from peccadilloes like a wayward street to more obvious inaccuracies like the supersize island of Manhattan. But Mr. Tauranac’s sheepish discovery of the errors has at once rekindled and complicated a long-simmering debate over who deserves credit for the watershed 1979 guide. Michael Hertz, whose firm is credited with designing the initial template for the map, has long chafed at Mr. Tauranac’s calling himself the “design chief” on a project that has garnered numerous accolades, including a commendation from the United States Department of Transportation and the National Endowment of the Arts.

“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz said in a telephone interview. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”

While Tauranac, who also takes a jab at Vignelli’s map in the article, is content to battle it out in the press with Hertz, the truth remains that the map is a semi-fictionalized part of New York City. It requires people riding the system to have a passing familiarity with their destination, and it does not provide point-to-point directions or above-ground accuracy. As MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said, “This is not a street map. This is a subway map.”

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Marc Shepherd May 7, 2012 - 2:36 pm

Amid the soap opera, the article makes a crucial point. The Hertz map was supposed to be accurate, where it could be accurate; the Vignelli map was not.

All usable maps make design compromises. The Hertz map at least tried to be geographically correct, where it could do so without intruding on other priorities. The Vignelli map never even made the attempt. That is what makes these errors significant.

Jerrold May 7, 2012 - 3:32 pm

You know, I think the clearest subway map was the first one that I can remember, the map from 1961. Does anybody else here (who is at least middle-aged, of course) remember that map?

Benjamin Kabak May 7, 2012 - 3:33 pm

I have some maps at home of that vintage. Those are simple and nice. Tough to tell the routes though because the lines are all the same color.

John-2 May 7, 2012 - 3:43 pm

IIRC, the 1958 map was the original one in that style, where the divisions each had their own color (IRT black, BMT green, IND red). The map lasted until the Christie connection pretty much obliterated the separation between the IND and the BMT (they showed BMT trains through the 11th Street cut along Queens Blvd. as a green dotted line alongside the IND’s solid red line).

Jerrold May 7, 2012 - 5:51 pm

The 1961 map must have been an updated version of that 1958 map. (I can remember maps from when I was ten years old, but not from when I was seven.) I still remember how Flushing Meadow Park was labeled as the site of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, then three years in the future. What’s also interesting is how the BMT and IND are considered to have been united by the Chrystie St. link in 1967, but at least six years earlier there were Brighton trains running along the Queens Blvd. line on weekdays.

Jerrold May 7, 2012 - 7:51 pm

I just found this Wiki article, which pertains to the subject matter of my earlier post here. But, I think there is at least one mistake in the article. I am reasonably sure that the 24/7 use of that BMT – IND link did not begin UNTIL that 1987 service change in which the terminals of the N and the R were interchanged. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/6.....ite_note-4

Peter Smith May 7, 2012 - 6:24 pm

hopefully NYC gets with decongestion pricing for transit soon. we’re smart enough to recommend it for car drivers, but not for transit users.

take any extra raised revenue and discount fares during non-peak times.


Anon256 May 10, 2012 - 8:19 pm

Neither of those ideas works well with unlimited-ride cards, the use of which needs to be maintained and encouraged to minimise vending machine related costs.

Eddie Jabbour May 7, 2012 - 6:53 pm

Ha! A tempest in a teapot! Why stop there? The Broadway inaccuracy is probably the smallest problem with the MTA’s map that was rendered loosey-goosey to begin with. For example a more important street/subway-centric inaccuracy is one line over, where the A-C-B-D trunk line veers diagonally westward at 121st Street from 8th Avenue (Frederick Douglass Blvd) to run along St. Nicholas Ave. This important street / subway route change is visually missing from the MTA map as the line is rendered totally straight – à la Vignelli! (I always found it amusing that they would show the bend in upper Broadway (inaccurately) but not the more important bend between 8th and St Nick). If you examine this just a little further, the map’s designers actually slid 8th Avenue eastward along Central Park towards 7th Avenue to make their straight line “work”!
For a map that purports itself to be “accurate” the general loopy nature of all the lines (see the curvy 4-5-6 line as it travels south from Lexington Avenue at 42nd Street to Park Avenue South and on to Lafayette Street) make it anything but. The map’s “loopy-line” design overall gives an imprecise and poor sense of the above ground reality.

Jason B. May 7, 2012 - 8:02 pm

That’s not the only mistake. The Amtrak line in Queens is very off. It is shown in Astoria as running north/south between Steinway Street and 36th Street. It actually doesn’t cross Brodaway until near Northern Boulevard, and crosses Astoria Boulevard just east of Steinway Street (at 43rd Street to be exact).

If I had known finding a mistake would have gathered this much attention maybe I would have brough it up in the past. It actually has bugged me a lot!

Maybe a reader here, or Ben, can pass it along as well.

BrooklynBus May 10, 2012 - 12:18 pm

Everyone cares about the mistakes in Manhattan. No one seemed to care that Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn was shown as Bergen Street for over 20 years and was just recently corrected, but not in the way it should have been corrected. I notified the MTA of this error in 2004 and they responded they will correct it. It took them another 6 years to do it.

Jason B. May 10, 2012 - 10:15 pm

I’m also wondering why on “the Map” it shows the Q terminal (square Q) at 57th, the J at Chambers, the 5 at Bowling Green, and the M at Myrtle. They clearly say the subway map shows weekday service, not weekday/weekend service. The Q, J, 5, and M all run their full routes during the weekday and evening hours, so if the map is weekday, shouldn’t the terminals not be there?

Or, better yet, return the service guide to the map.

Andrew May 13, 2012 - 8:06 pm

+1 to your last sentence.


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