The signaling from subway map design


The way a subway map displays transfers can impact rider behavior.

From the looks of today’s subway map, transferring amongst trains at Fulton St. appears to be a piece of cake while traversing the distance from the 2 or 3 to the A or C, let alone the E, at Park Place/Chambers St. would require a very long walk. There might be some truth to the distance, but that up-and-down trip between trains at Fulton St. is hardly convenient. Thus, enter the “subway map effect.”

We last heard of the subway map effect in May of 2011 when NYU Professor Zhan Guo released a study on map design. By examining London’s schematic map, Guo determined that map design can impact travel choices to a rather extreme degree. Commuters in London were willing to travel inefficiently because they believed making a transfer would get them closer to their destinations than walking would. The distortions of the schematic map rule how otherwise-sophisticated travelers plan their rides.

So what happens when you start tweaking the map design? Can transit agencies control behavior by adjusting design? Perhaps by making a transfer look shorter, transit planners can siphon riders into a less trafficked area. Guo now plans to find out. He spoke to Jessica Gross for a piece on The Atlantic Cities about his current research, and here’s how Gross described it:

Which leads to Guo’s big question: “Can we change the map in order to change people’s behavior?” If we believe maps over our own knowledge, and we do, the answer is likely yes. In a new study of D.C.’s Metrorail system, Guo is measuring the difference. He’s collaborated with Wyman to produce three variations on the Metro map, all of which increase the apparent length of the Blue and Orange Lines at the point that they cross the Potomac River. One increases to the west, one to the north, and one in both directions. Comparing reactions to these maps to the current one, and to a real geographic map, will help Guo better understand how both route length and directionality can factor into passengers’ decisions.

Can Guo and Wyman encourage people, through design alone, to transfer to the Yellow Line over the river instead of staying on the Blue? This isn’t just a matter of intellectual interest: The Rosslyn tunnel is overcrowded, so rerouting some human traffic would make a difference. “Even if you can switch one or two percent of passengers from the Blue to the Yellow Line, that’s a big success, because the cost is zero,” Guo says.

That is, altering infrastructure is expensive, and since many transit agencies, including WMATA, face big budget shortfalls, it’s often difficult, if not impossible. But changing a map—making this crowded line look longer and less convenient, or replacing that complex-looking transfer with a dot—could change usage patterns practically for free. Mapmakers could nudge us to not only use less crowded lines, but also get out and walk, transfer at less trafficked stations, or even use alternate transit systems.

For a bit more, check out this abstract on Guo’s own site. On the surface, it makes sense. We use a subway map for visual cues to help us plan our journeys. If we’re not familiar with a system, we’ll seek out the map for assistance.

What intrigues me about Guo’s research though are the long-term implications. Will riders continue to follow the cues from the map if they know one route is shorter than the other even if it doesn’t appear that way on the subway map? New York’s system doesn’t have quite the same number of transfers as some others; you can thank the City, the BMT and the IRT for that. But it has enough. We’ll have to check back in with Guo once he’s wrapped up his investigation of Washington. For now, it’s food for thought.

Categories : Subway Maps

13 Responses to “The signaling from subway map design”

  1. Marc Shepherd says:

    I’m not convinced that map design would change commuting patterns in NYC. Once people have actually used a station, they pretty quickly figure out if the reality is different than what the map depicts. Riders know if a particular station has a quirky layout, and plan their travel patterns accordingly.

    • BoerumBum says:

      Marc, I generally agree with you, but if it could syphon away the people who aren’t familiar with the system (tourists, weekenders, etc…), you might get a fairly big effect, as those groups tend to walk slowly, stop suddenly, stare at signs, travel in gaggles, hug poles, and block doors in relatively high percentages.

      • AK says:

        I also agree and I’ll add one other thought: that the inertia of an initial commuting pattern is difficult to overcome, despite the availability of alternatives. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I have encountered many people who travel to work in a particular way and never think twice about it, even though I am aware (as a transit geek) of a significant flaw in their commute. When I suggest a change, the response is often along the lines of, “Ehh, I like MY way,” meaning the path to which they’ve become accustomed through the inertia of that first ride. If we can get people to make more efficient decisions in that first week when they encounter a new system (or, even for longtime New Yorkers, a new commuting pattern in a new neighborhood), we can save everyone some trouble.

        • Tower18 says:

          A perfect example of this inertia is folks along the line where the F and G share tracks in Brooklyn. People who normally take the F from, say, Ft. Hamilton Pkwy and then transfer to the A/C at Jay St will let a G go by, rather than transferring to that same A/C train at Hoyt-Schemerhorn.

          My personal transit philosophy is always stay moving. If you have multiple transfer points…say you could transfer at either Jay St or W 4th St because you’re headed uptown…and you pull into Jay St and there’s no A/C there, STAY ON THE TRAIN. Try again at W 4th. Bonus: there’s the addition of the more-frequent E train there as well.

          This way, you get as close as possible to your destination so that, if things go tits up and the train you catch at the transfer point isn’t running, you’re that much closer and can investigate alternatives.

          • Andrew says:

            The same applies to walking. Say you’re headed northwest (so you need to cross lots of streets in both directions). If there are no obstacles, you should keep going the direction you’re going. But as soon as something slows you down going north — don’t wait, go west! And vice-versa.

  2. John-2 says:

    Just on the snippet of Lower Manhattan map posted above, the rookie rider would get the general impression that the shorter the connecting lines between the transfer stations, the shorter the actual transfer, which isn’t always true. The 2-3 to the 4-5 at Fulton is a longer slog than the N-Q transfer to the 6 or the J-M at Canal, but the map shows otherwise, because it depicts the local and express stop on the BMT Broadway line at Canal as sharing the same station shell (which may have been how it was planned in 1913, but that’s not how it turned out).

    Even accouting for the distortions required in Manhattan due to the graphics space needed on all the trunk lines, the MTA can probably tweak the map a bit to better indicate which transfers are literally right on top of each other, and which ones require a significant amount of corridor walking to get to (and to be fair at Fulton, the IRT-to-IRT connection does show the transfer lines as going through the A-C station, but not through the J’s Fulton Street stop. Other that adding a graphic telling map readers “This is a really, really long walk” I’m not sure what else they can do to indicate the difficulty of getting between the East Side and West Side Interborough lines).

  3. Christopher says:

    I came to NY a half dozen times as a tourist and intern before I moved here and it really took walking the streets to understand the relationship between the subway map and the street itself (and heck neighborhood to neighborhood). I know I made all kinds of stupid decisions about getting around based on the subway map as I didn’t understand the street patterns above (which is another reason I’m not convinced our map does a better job than one that would more purely schematic.) I’m sure I did things like take the subway from 2nd to Union Square when I could have easily walked. Or 14th to 18th. Or whatever.

    DC is something of a different animal in that their stations are often VERY far apart. (Although Gallery Place and Metro Center are so close you can can see down the tunnel the platform of the other, but I am sure I’ve taken that as well. And didn’t realize until much later how close they were.)

  4. Michael says:

    I definitely think changing the map would alter peoples habits. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me they won’t meet me at South Street Seaport from Fulton Street and Nassau where I work because its a really long walk. Until they actually do it and its only a few short blocks. The map makes downtown Manhattan look huge and unless you work there, and most people don’t, I find many New Yorkers have a skewed opinion of the place because of the map.

  5. SEAN says:

    The way a subway map displays transfers can impact rider behavior. That’s because maps are a distortion of actual distance as several posts have indicated.

  6. Andrew says:

    This is an interesting point. In fact, the Park Place is easier and shorter than the Fulton transfer, but the map certainly doesn’t make that clear.

    If you’re transferring from the 2/3/4/5 to the R in Brooklyn, the map implies that Borough Hall is an easier transfer than Atlantic, which is certainly not the case.

    The map wrongly implies that transferring between the 1 and the A/C at 59th is marginally more difficult than at 168th.

    Broadway Junction is a single point, even though the A/C is a long escalator ride away from the elevated lines. Similar at Myrtle-Wyckoff and at 161st – yet one stop down at 149th, the 4 and 2/5 are separated by two easy flights of stairs while the map implies a long passageway.

    Times Square is a nice compact station (ha!), except for the 8th Avenue side, which looks to be a good mile away.

    And the map doesn’t show the locations where transferring between local and express is best avoided – 34th on 7th and 8th, 59th/Lex, Borough Hall, Atlantic, and the part-time terminals at 57th/7th and Brighton Beach.

  7. Another graphic misrepresentation in the current MTA map that probably leads to as much frustration is the display of QNR express and local stops at Canal Street, which is combined on the map (see above) as a single white dot. This implies that the express-local transfer is easy while in fact it is not. The express and local trains stop at two separate platforms that are quite a walk away from each other. The QN express platform, which crosses the Manhattan Bridge, is oriented East/West and is a distance away from the R local platform which is oriented North/South as it travels south to Chambers Street station.


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