In London, a new approach to wayfinding


A distorted sense of geography is a hallmark of the London Tube map.

New York City has, for obvious reasons, a close tie with the now-completed 2012 Olympics. Our Mayor wanted it for the city while many New Yorkers fought against it, worrying about costs, security and added mayhem that hosting the global competition for two weeks would bring to the city. Ultimately, the Mayor still managed to secure his 7 line extension, and the city received two new baseball stadiums, a basketball arena and potentially a new soccer stadium as well. What we missed besides the Games themselves is hard to see.

Meanwhile, London just wrapped up a compelling spectacle of competition but managed to scare away many residents and tourists. The economic bump expected from the Summer Games may not materialize, but the presence of tens of thousands of foreigners making use of London’s transportation infrastructure may help Transport for London readjust the way it presents itself.

As we know, London has entirely eschewed a subway map that nods to geography. The famous Harry Beck map presents a schematic of the system with notoriously famous results. Riders unfamiliar with the complex geography of London streets often find themselves wasting time on the Tubes when walking a few blocks would be more efficient. The Olympics apparently laid this to bare, and Joe Peach at This Big City penned an amusing and insightful column on it:

With millions of visitors in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the city’s transport network is under more pressure than ever before. If you want to head to the Olympics, chances are you’ll get the next tube to Stratford, even though there are countless other stations that link to Olympic sites. Aware of the challenges of dealing with millions of extra riders, most of whom won’t be local and will be relying on geographically flawed signage for directions, TfL have made some temporary updates…

Route maps on underground carriages are now littered with pink boxes pointing out which stations can be used to access Olympic events. This photo shows what you’ll find if you take the Jubilee Line, and London’s 12 other lines are all looking pretty similar. Though relatively minor additions, they represent a pretty radical development for a map that has barely changed its visual approach in eight decades…

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world, and as a result many stations are named after once-significant local features (in fact, much of London is named after once-significant local features). The effect of this is the present-day destinations they largely exist to serve rarely get prominent placement on signage, with obvious potential for confusion among travellers. Though investment in technology and improved infrastructure is critical for the London Underground to remain efficient (and TfL is doing both of these things), improving the design of the network’s wayfinding tools also plays a key role. A functional city needs citizens and visitors that are well-informed, and with TfL rethinking its underground map and signage, London has become that little bit easier to get around, for locals and visitors alike.

Peach’s last paragraph above is key, and it’s something map designers often lose sight of. As I discussed last week, Massimo Vignelli’s controversial New York City subway map was to be used in conjunction with two other maps, but the MTA never embraced the Verbal Map. Thus, Vignelli’s diagrammatic map never caught on and annoyed many who tried to use it. In London, Beck’s diagram has ruled for decades, but the city seems willing to embrace some added information.

I’ve written a lot over the years about the search for the right map, but it seems more and more likely that the one right map doesn’t exist. The proper approach to directional wayfinding involves making sure riders have the right information in the right format at the right point. London is working its way toward a better solution. I wonder if New York needs to do the same.

Categories : Subway Maps

14 Responses to “In London, a new approach to wayfinding”

  1. Tim Willis says:

    For anyone interested, BBC has an extraordinarily interesting and well-done series on the Tube. It focuses on many aspects of the system, signage and wayfinding among them.

  2. Bolwerk says:

    Look at it with geographical accuracy. I’m tempted to say that, functionally, London’s Underground really is more like a big version of the DC Metro or BART than NYCTA. Not only is London’s geography simply more confusing, but the peripheral of the system is almost more for distant commuters than inner city residents.

  3. IanM says:

    “I wonder if New York needs to do the same.”

    But New York already has a much more information-dense and geographically accurate map than London’s. We’re already at the “better solution”, or at least a lot closer than London is, so I’m unclear what it is you’re advocating.

    Sidenote: While understandably necessary, even the scale distortions in New York’s map have their detriments and side-effects. Since it’s pretty much the only map that many New Yorkers ever look at of their city, I’ve had many conversations with Manhattanites who are completely unaware that Brooklyn is in fact much larger in area than the Manhattan, contrary to how it looks on the MTA map. People also vastly underestimate how long it’s going to take to get to, say, Coney Island from Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, because that distance looks about equivalent to much shorter trips in Manhattan on the map. And visitors don’t realize that Rockefeller Center or Bryant Park are just short walks from Grand Central.

    IMO, what we’ve got is a decent compromise, but departures from reality in maps should really be minimized to the extent possible while maintaining readability. Even if “not to scale” is stated somewhere, most people expect maps to reflect geography and plan their trips accordingly.

    • Jason B. says:

      I agree. I think we’re in a better position, and honestly Vignelli keeps coming up way too much; it’s in the past.

      The simpler redesign minus much of the streets on the current map is pretty nice. And, much like how Vignelli’s map was supposed to have supplements, we have them too in the stations: geographically accurate maps to guide you including where the stairs lead to. These neighborhood maps are quite handy when in the station, and should be on the MTA website not just as part of the Weekender.

      I think we’ve got it down well here.

    • I guess I wasn’t particularly clear in the post. It’s not only about maps. It’s about in-station signage and providing directions to nearby attractions. Do you feel the MTA adequately points the way from inside a subway station to the locations and landmarks that are most desired? What’s the most efficient way to get to MSG from either Penn Station stop? How easy is to find the Statue of Liberty ferry from Lower Manhattan subway stops? Those types of questions are what London tried to answer for the last few weeks, and I’m not sure the MTA has succeeded.

      • IanM says:

        Ah, I see. No, I suppose not. Actually, I can’t think of many places where the MTA seems to have made any effort at all to include popular landmarks in its signage. Maybe it takes something like the Olympics to make that need clear – I’m sure many tourists take the subway, but riders are still overwhelmingly commuters.

        I’m curious how this will be handled at Atlantic Ave. with regards to the Barclays Center.

    • Lady Feliz says:

      Or that Staten Island is 3x the size of Manhattan and is not a few hundred yards off the coast of Battery Park, as the subway map suggests. I’ve met tourists and natives alike who thing Governor’s Island is Staten Island.

  4. John says:

    I still think the KickMap is the best subway map I’ve ever seen, for any system. It’s much more clear about routing than the existing map, while making little geographical compromise:

  5. Erik Griswold says:

    Is there any rule that New York couldn’t publish two maps? One would be “geographic” like today’s and another would be a diagram like London’s?

    Boston and Los Angeles do this.

  6. CoolBeanz says:

    I downloaded the iPad version of the KickMap and it is impressive. I can’t think of any transit map, printed or digital, that compares. As touchscreen technology becomes cheaper and widespread, it would be wonderful to have this or something similar as the standard map in stations and on trains. The MTA should start now trying to be on the forefront of this.

  7. Rational Plan says:

    A lot of TFL’s signage is there to manage congestion and distribute loads on different lines and in stations, rather than to provide you with the quickest route.

    During the Olympics, many of the promoted stations have much longer walks to the park than the main one. The online journey planner played similar tricks sending people anywhere but the shortest route. As a temporary solution not a problem you may think (except a lot of these ruses where only needed at certain peak times).

    But the strategy often catches out the unwary at some of the biggest stations. The worst is King Cross, on some lines you will be led a merry dance down long corridors and escalators to get out, when if you knew the old signs, before the built the extra tunnels and ticket halls to relieve the crush, you can be out in five minutes.

  8. bgriff says:

    Slate did a great story a while back on other, non-Olympic efforts London has made to right the confusion of the Tube’s non-geographic map:

  9. Lady Feliz says:

    I got the subway map memorized, so just ask me when u need directions 🙂

  10. UESider says:

    A friend of mine visited and thought Manhattan was (perfectly) rectangular – he was surprised to even find hills on some avenues and cross streets

    My first impression every time I look at the redesigned map – is that Central Park does not take up 75% of the width of Manhattan – it’s probably barely 1/4 of the width – but looking at the map, I wonder where all the people live?

    Also, the parks should be greener the way they used to be – I don’t like the brownish color – makes me not want to go to the parks

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