Massimo Vignelli’s original vision for subway wayfinding involved three pieces — a schematic map, a guide to subway service and a geographically accurate neighborhood map for immediate navigation aboveground. At various points in time, these elements all caught on but not at once when the late designer introduced the concept in the early 1970s. Today, in my opinion, the MTA’s neighborhood maps, complete with nearby landmarks and subway staircase location, are the most useful of the various guides and maps the agency offers, and this week, Transit formally announced a redesign in conjunction with NYC DOT’s WalkNYC wayfinding initiative.
“This partnership with the MTA allows for consistent maps above and below ground, making it easier for users to reach their destinations,” NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board Member Polly Trottenberg said. “We’re excited to provide this resource to New Yorkers and tourists to find their way in the city.”
For over two decades, the MTA has maintained neighborhood maps through shifting subway service patterns and changes above ground. Currently, the agency has 68 maps in all 468 subway stations, each with a radius of around 15-30 blocks. The current iteration is imprecise as the same map you’ll see in, say, Union St. is the same as the one hanging at Grand Army Plaza or 15th Street-Prospect Park stations. The new Pentagram-designed maps will instead be centered around the station in which they hang and incorporate the design of the WalkNYC wayfinding maps but with more information relating to other transit options included local, express and SBS lines. The new maps will focus on around only 12 blocks instead.
“Though we’ve kept the MTA’s neighborhood maps up-to-date, this is the first redesign since the original set created more than 20 years ago and will be extremely helpful to subway customers as they leave the system and look for neighborhood points of interest,” Paul Fleuranges, the MTA’s Senior Director of Corporate and Internal Communications, said. “With this new map, everyone will rely on one way-finding system, both above and below ground.”
To me, as I noted, the best part of the current maps are the station footprints. These maps are generally displayed in the fare control areas with diagrams showing exactly where, aboveground, staircases lead. It’s convenient for exiting and even more so for entering at unfamiliar stations. When I first saw the new maps, I thought this vital cog had been removed, but upon closer examination, and with a confirmation from the MTA, I learned this was not only not the case but a real reason why the maps will be slowly rolled out throughout the city. “Of course the new neighborhood maps contain subway stairway info,” an MTA spokesman said to me. “That was actually one of the time consuming things as station shapes and entrances are not in the DOT’s database of information.”
The new signs are currently in five stations that all intersect the SBS B44’s route. The list includes Bedford-Nostrand on the G, the Nostrand Ave. stations along the 3 and A/C, and the 2 and 5 trains’ President and Sterling St. stations. It’s a subtle, but positive, improvement for the benefit of customers.