Photo: Subway routes presents, subway routes past


I recently came across an old subway map on full display in a building in Manhattan. The map, as the K bullet and dearly departed Train to the Plane illustrate, wasn’t so much for navigation purposes as for art and nostalgia. It was of a vintage lost to time.

The map too is of another era. Dating from the late 1970s, this was the first post-Vignelli map. After the simplicity of the Massimo’s diagram, the MTA went information-heavy. The map was — and still is — a mess from a graphic design perspective, and it featured far more information than any subway map needed. The one I spotted hanging up was an MTA release with streets that didn’t matter, locations that attracted few subway riders and a building address locator. The designers couldn’t have crammed more useless information on a map if they tried.

Last night, I saw Vignelli and two of his associates talk at the Transit Museum about the controversial and now-iconic subway map, its origin and demise, and its rebirth as the MTA’s online-only Weekender offering. Vignelli, a spry 81 with a dry wit, has very strong opinions about map making in general and his map specifically. He clearly thinks its the best diagrammatic representation of the New York City subway map, and from his viewpoint and design philosophy, he isn’t incorrect. The map shows what happens underground and nothing more. It is up to the rider to get the rest of the way there.

Calling the map that replaced him “the most horrible thing” that “makes irrelevant things relevant and relevant things irrelevant,” he questioned the need for “jillions of balloons all over the place.” He enthralled the audience, and while his original idea for a four-part map system was perhaps a bit too ambitious, the Internet has ushered in a great Vignelli revival. I’ll have a more comprehensive report from the event later today, and for now, I’ll leave you with those tidbits and a glimpse at some subway bullets lost to time.

The system changes; the map changes; and no one can agree on the best way to show it all. Is anyone more right or wrong than the next person? Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, but the same cannot be said for a map that’s easy to use and understand.

For more on the K train, read up on the history of the Chrystie St. Cut and for a trip down memory lane, check out my reflections on the Train to the Plane and its permanent place in New York City history.

Categories : Subway Maps

27 Responses to “Photo: Subway routes presents, subway routes past”

  1. John-2 says:

    With the ADD/Immediate Gratification Era we’re in, too much information on a map annoys people, as does asking them to do multiple map searches to determine how best to get from Point A to Point B. The MTA has improved from the original ’79 single-color-for-each-trunk-line map, which tried too hard to be all things to all people. But at least they’re trying to make it so one map suffices to get people from here to there via the closest possible stations; Vignelli’s attitude a third of a century since his map was tossed still comes across as if he wants to present you with the world’s most elegant piece of rapid transit cartographic spinach, and you better eat it — and enjoy the 2-3 side dishes as well — if you know what’s good for you.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Obviously, Vignelli’s going to defend his own work: who wouldn’t?

      But his map sucked, and still does. Ben has an incomprehensible attraction to it. But it’s far better in a museum than as a navigation tool.

      • I don’t think it sucked as a map, but that depends upon how you view a map and what you want out of it. Does the London Underground map suck as a map too?

        Generally, my attraction to it is as an artifact of New York City history and as someone who appreciates its simplicity and design. The newer version is far, far better than the one from the 1970s. That said, I don’t think it was a perfect map, and I don’t think the current iteration is either. They can all work together though.

      • John-2 says:

        I’d expect him to defend his work, especially since it won praise from people who saw it more as a work of art and not as a functioning visual document, and that’s the point. It’s been 33 years since the MTA went away from his map, and as far as I can tell, he’s made no attempt to come up with some sort of modifications for his own work that would address the original complaints that the diagram fails to reflect the geographic realities of New York.

        It’s kind of a “my way or the highway” attitude for subway riders — a map that allows only 45- or 90-degree angle turns can’t help but distort some parts of the city, just as today’s MTA map is forced to distort the width of Manhattan and the length of the downtown area. But the MTA’s effort at least tries not to distort the neighborhoods too badly (it corrects in part by distorting the routes across the East River betweeen Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn). Vignelli’s simply comfortable with his map as an untouchable work of art which users have to adjust to, and figure out the distortions on their own.

  2. Kevin Walsh says:

    This is one of the MTA maps found in every station, which also shows actual streets and bus routes. I love them and wish the MTA would issue them in atlas form.

    Note Verrazano Street, which was on every map in the early 70s because it was almost a done deal that it would be built. It never was.

  3. I was at this memorable event. The great Vignelli showing his beautiful graphic diagram – the detail blow ups took my breath away! But an island city without water? Without parks?  Where are you going to with this map? Only from station to station? Hmmm…. Sometimes I just want to go to Prospect Park, but there is no Prospect Park to go to… A pity really. The current map with all it’s ugly clutter still shows me how to get to a park or the Brooklyn Bridge. 

  4. John T says:

    I totally agree with the two comments above. When I visit Londno or Paris I need two maps – one for the tube or metro, the other for the streets where the station is. NYC’s map does it in one step, and that is beautiful.

    There is a key flaw underlying the diagram maps, that you are underground so the streets don’t matter. In NYC, a majority of the subway is above ground (except Manhattan), so by that logic elevated lines should be geographic even on a diagram.

  5. Jordan C. says:

    Following your link to the original NY Times article about planning for the Chrystie St. Cut, I noted that funds were also requested at that time to convert the 59th Street station on the West Side IRT to an express stop (obviously never happened) and to build “a new lower level platform at Grand Central Station”. What was that all about? Does anyone know where/how this new platform would have fit in with the existing ones?

    • TP says:

      Ugh, did they want to put the express and local on different levels, like 59th and 86th? That’s one of the biggest flaws to the East Side IRT: lack of cross-platform transfers. I hate riding the 6 all the way from 42nd to 125th ’cause I don’t know where the 4/5 are and the crowd of people standing in the middle of the stairs between the levels ’cause we all want to get on the “first train that comes” outside of rush hours. Really poor design.

      • Tim says:

        Former UES resident who’s lived near 86, 68, and 77th in different times. Lookngi back at the pics of the system, by the time they decided to go up lex, they were hemmed in by the grid. 8th ave is far wider, as is 7th and broadway. The northern eastern branch of the rit sprung up after the original line went in, and had to deal with a completed GCT and all that junk going up the east side.

        Also, just catch a 4/5 from 125th, it’s always faster than catching the first 6.

        • John-2 says:

          The Lex design has always puzzled me, because the IRT builders went four-wide with the tracks on Lex between 100th and 112th streets, and even though Lex is narrower than the older avenues to the east and west, it’s still wider than Broadway for most of its path south of 34th Street, and the BMT went four-wide there (Broadway at 28th is barely wider than a one-way side street, and somehow they still got four tracks and two platforms in there).

          • Matthias says:

            I wondered about that too, but I think the issue would be squeezing in two sufficiently wide island platforms at the express stops. The tracks would wind up right against the building foundations even if the platforms were offset (like at 42 St on the 8 Av Line). On the Broadway Line, the express stops are only at wide locations.

            I wonder whether the builders might have brought all four tracks to the same level between 77th and 51st had the Lexington Av BMT station not been in the way.

    • I’m glad you asked! A few years ago, I looked at the East Side 59th St. station history, and before that, I had looked at an aborted effort to turn the West Side 59th St. into an express stop as well.

  6. Hank says:

    This map is actually from the mid 1980s, when they stopped using double letters to attempt to differentiate between express and local trains. This version of the K was once the AA.

  7. Bolwerk says:

    I do think it’s elegant and well-crafted, but I don’t think Vignelli’s style as the official core map in NYC. In fact, of all the NYC is teh different!!1!1!1! arguments I’ve seen, this is one of the few I kind of buy. For whatever reason – psychological, linguistic (uptown/downtown/crosstown?), cultural, whatever – New Yorkers are just very keenly aware of the geography of the city, and a diagram like in London or DC is just disconcerting. That said, Vignelli is a great option for Weekender, which really does need the diagram. I’m glad it found some use.

    The challenge with the official NYC map really is figuring out what information to include, what to exclude.

  8. Vladimir M says:

    Wait, what is Verrazano St.?

  9. Larry Littlefield says:

    Look at the service levels, the number of routes, before the 1970s fiscal crisis. On the B division in particular. That is more relevant than the map style.

    We still have about as many cars, but we have more spares and fewer on the road.

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