Home Subway Maps Map: A more circular subway system

Map: A more circular subway system

by Benjamin Kabak
Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of Max Roberts)

The different designs of the New York City subway system have always piqued my curiosity. From purely schematic representations to quasi-geographical maps, visual presentations of subway systems run the gamut, and as the debate over Massimo Vignelli’s infamous 1970s-era map shows, they can lead to some strong opinions and lively debates. The latest entry making the rounds this week comes to us from Max Roberts, a U.K.-based psychologist, who has used his training and study of the human mind to present a map of circles.

After posts appeared on Gothamist and Co.Exist last week, Roberts supplied me with the version of the map I’ve posted above. He corrected some of the errors pointed out in other forums as he expects my readership to pick up on those even quicker than others have. In discussing his map with other outlets, he shared some of the rational behind the design.

The maps, he noted, are clearly not geographic in nature, and the partisans who hate the Vignelli map will dislike this representation as well. But, he noted, the map “isn’t trying to show where the network is. It’s trying to show how the elements of the network relate to each other.”

A close-up of the circles radiating out from Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Max Roberts)

A close-up of the circles radiating out from Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Max Roberts)

Still, Roberts himself isn’t too sure of the practicality of his maps. “I don’t think that these maps are particularly easy to use, and they do distort geography,” he said to Gothamist, “but they force a city into an unprecedented level of organization, and people find them fresh and exciting (or horrific, but I feel that if I delight half the people and horrify the other half then I must be doing something right).”

His solution though would bridge the gap between design purists and geographical advocates. “Personally, I think that every large network should always issue two maps, a good geographical map and a good diagram so that people can choose which they prefer,” he said. “You just can’t please all people with just one design, and the gulf between the desires for simple straight lines versus geographical precision is almost always impossible to resolve. That’s probably why there are so many independent maps of the New York subway on the internet and that you can buy.”

So there you have it. It may not be the most functional map of the subway system, but it will certainly make anyone who sees it pause. That, of course, is half the battle when it comes to constructing a useful map.

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JJJJ July 29, 2013 - 3:09 pm

It makes sense that a website which focuses on the MTA has higher/better ridership than a more general news blog.

JJJJ July 29, 2013 - 5:02 pm

Now that the typo has been corrected, my post makes little sense

Scott July 29, 2013 - 3:16 pm

Are we looking for mistakes? Like the lack of transfer at South Ferry to Whitehall…

I like the map… Not more than a geographic map… But it is still a neat design…

Spiderpig July 29, 2013 - 3:59 pm

Yeah, it seems like the R should drop below the 4/5 at the tip of Manhattan because the 1 and R stations are way too far apart to even look like there is a transfer now.

Spiderpig July 29, 2013 - 3:38 pm

As someone who is already familiar with the subway map, I find this extremely interesting. I’m guessing “call at all stops” is Brit-speak to equate making all stops? Something that jumps out at me is that it seemingly ignores overnights, such as the 42nd street shuttle not in service and the 4 making local stops in Manhattan, but that is a whole other level of complication.

Spiderpig July 29, 2013 - 3:39 pm

I also appreciate the listing of the extra cross street at most station stops.

Henry July 29, 2013 - 3:48 pm

Aren’t South Ferry and Whitehall connected?

Also, maintaining a diagram like this would be a pain in the ass for MTA – it doesn’t look like there’s any room to fit the 7 line extension or the Second Avenue Subway.

ian July 30, 2013 - 12:45 pm

To fit additional lines, I believe that the Island of Manhattan would just be widened to accept the additional lines.

John-2 July 29, 2013 - 3:49 pm

Well, at least this map moves the “Absurdly inaccurate long Manhattan walk” up to the Inwood area. Vignelli’s original map placed the distance exaggeration in the area between the Bowling Green subway stop and South Ferry, where it was bound to confuse far more people.

Spiderpig July 29, 2013 - 4:04 pm

There are a lot of absurd distances here. Why can’t Broadway be diagonal? And Central Park has turned into a strange curved trapezoid. But that’s not really the point. It’s more about the direct subway connections rather than how far it takes to walk between two stations that don’t have an in-system transfer.

Spiderpig July 29, 2013 - 4:06 pm

Then again, the real MTA map makes 7th and 8th avenues look five times further apart than 9th and 10th avenues, for example. It’s tough with a different subway running down each consecutive avenue.

John-2 July 29, 2013 - 6:38 pm

The inaccurate widths is an unavoidable problem, once you have to add the station graphics to the stops with four trunk lines west of Fifth Avenue between Madison Square and Central Park, along with the cornucopia of lines winding through lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.

My only point was because of the rotary nature of the map you have the problem of the 1 train at Nagle Avenue being a long ways off from the Harlem River, which is still more justifiable than some of the liberties Vignelli took with the far southern tip of Manhattan 40-plus years ago, in order to preserve his design concept that lines could only turn at 45 or 90 degree angles. That’s why Bowling Green on the 4/5 looked like it was a mile from South Ferry and Whitehall Street.

Michael July 29, 2013 - 3:56 pm

It may not be the most functional map of the subway system, but it will certainly make anyone who sees it pause. That, of course, is half the battle when it comes to constructing a useful map.

Is it though? Wouldn’t you want to make anyone who sees it understand it at first glance, without needing a pause? The “pause” in this case comes from introducing an extraneous element (the radial geometry) that has no real purpose, which is calling attention to… is it centered on Governors Island? This is interesting as a design exercise (and I love it as such) but it has no value in terms of improving understandability.

Nathanael August 5, 2013 - 8:13 pm

I actually get this map and I could understand it at first glance. I think it would make more sense if NJ-side services were included. The center of the map is NY Harbor.

Bolwerk July 29, 2013 - 3:59 pm

It’s a neat idea, but ultimately not much more useful than a gimmick. New Yorkers are just keenly aware of geography when they use transit, and find not accounting for it a bit jarring.

Stu Sutcliffe July 29, 2013 - 5:10 pm

But isn’t the purpose of a map to help you know where you are and get to our destination? What’s wrong with being as geographically accurate as is possible?

Jerrold July 29, 2013 - 5:52 pm


Off-topic, but I’m putting this here so it will BE SEEN.
How about doing a post here about Carol Maloney’s public comments this afternoon about the SAS?
In fact, the way she phrased it (or at least the way it was covered on WINS-AM) made it unclear whether she was talking about Phase 1 or about the entire project.

Jerrold July 29, 2013 - 5:54 pm

P.S. The Times website has so far ignored this event.
Maybe they will put on there something about it tomorrow.

Benjamin Kabak July 29, 2013 - 5:56 pm

Obviously I’m going to do a post on that, but I didn’t have a chance to do so today. She’s talking only about Phase 1. You’d know if the rest of SAS were halfway finished already.

Jerrold July 29, 2013 - 7:13 pm

Oh, of course I’d know!

I meant only that it was not clear to me whether or not her message was
“Let’s keep going and build the other phases”.

It disappoints me to learn that she did NOT mean that.

Nyland8 July 29, 2013 - 6:45 pm

Hmmm – spokes and arcs.

My first impression is that I’d like to see the map redone with Herald Square at the center. That would turn some arcs into spokes – and vice versa.

ian July 30, 2013 - 12:53 pm

I don’t particularly like what is happening with the ACBD up Central Park West. Otherwise, I really like the map!

Ted K. August 10, 2013 - 7:35 am

It seems to me that the target audience for the circular map isn’t riders – it’s planners. This map makes the lack of perimeter connections stand out. Yes, there may be bus routes that fill in some of the gaps but at what cost (time penalties / capacity constraints) ?

A revised version that shows some of the busier bus routes could be used as an argument for the RX project. I hope the transit planners in NYC take note of this alternative view and add it to their toolkits.

Nyland8 August 10, 2013 - 9:30 am

Imagine, instead of originating in the middle of the harbor, the center of the spokes radiated near midtown – say the A,C,E at NYPenn. Then add the Tri-Boro Rx to the map. Or, better yet, a Quadboro, which includes a tunnel from St. George to Owls Head, and continuing along the north shore corridor of Staten Island.

An understanding of our system, and how it could be dramatically expanded and improved, might be much easier to see.


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