Archive for Subway Maps

When the MTA unveiled their latest iteration of the subway map a few years ago, they did so with a caveat. The confusing service status box, detailing various changes at different times of day, disappeared, and the map was intended to represent peak-hour and midday service during the week only. A short-lived Night Map was available, depicting overnight service, and weekend changes are handled via signage and The Weekender. Last week, though, the status box made a triumphant and streamlined, albeit still flawed, return.

As many have noted and as I photographed last week, in addition to the reopened Montague St. Tunnels, the September printing of the subway map also contains a new guide to weekend and overnight service. Using subway bullets and better descriptors, the guide presents information in an easy-to-digest format. It lacks information — such as when these so-called “late night” service patterns begin — that isn’t readily available in the system. For some reason, the MTA hasn’t been keen to announce last trains on routes that don’t run 24 hours or when exactly, say, the D train will start running local in Brooklyn. That’s just something regular riders pick up, and the new feature doesn’t cover the gap.

Still, this is a welcome return of an old feature that shouldn’t have gone away in the first place. It’s not perfect, but it’s information that people need to ride. Otherwise, they may find themselves simply too confused by the subway map to make heads or turns of our ostensibly complicated network. Don’t believe me? Just talk to Bim Adewunmi instead.

If this looks familiar to some, it’s because this is a story I covered via an Instagram posting a few days ago but didn’t have a chance to write up until now. Follow Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram for more sights and scenes from the city’s subways.

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New neighborhood maps designed by Pentagram are centered around the station in which they hang. (Photo via New York City Transit)

New neighborhood maps designed by Pentagram are centered around the station in which they hang. (Photo via New York City Transit)

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.”

The station schematics in the neighborhood maps will remain in the new versions.

The station schematics in the neighborhood maps will remain in the new versions.

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.

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Massimo and his map. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Whenever I unfold one of my original 1970s Massimo Vignelli subway diagrams, I’m always struck by how small they are. Compared with the maps the MTA hands out today that lend themselves to awkward interactions that clearly indicate someone unfamiliar with the subways, the city or both, Vignelli’s maps open smaller than even a tabloid newspaper. They were meant to be stuffed into a pocket and consulted when needed. They also launched a thousand endless debates of form over function. To honor Vignelli, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83, let’s have another.

For the vast majority of New Yorkers — or at least the vast majority of New Yorkers who have heard of him — the name Massimo Vignelli conjures up images of a very distinctive style in subway map history. For 42 years, in fact, New Yorkers have debated this map, and in the minds of this city’s millions, it will be Vignelli’s lasting legacy even as our lives are infused with his designs for American Airlines, for National Parks brochures, for Big Brown Bags, for countless other items that use and exploit the stark lines of Helvetica, his preferred font.

Over the past few years, I had the opportunity to see Vignelli speak, first on a panel and later in a presentation. He had a sharp wit and a good sense of humor, but he also had a clear stubborn streak. He always felt, long after the MTA pushed him away and then brought him back into the fold, that his subway diagram — definitely not a map, mind you, but a diagram — was better than anything before it and certainly better than the overloaded mess of a map the MTA has tried to streamline in recent years. It had smooth angles, clear lines and obvious colors, and it was designed to get a straphanger from place to place underground, not from place aboveground to place aboveground via the underground.

Simplicity was key to Vignelli. During a 2012 talk at the Transit Museum, Vignelli spoke of his philosophy while heaping criticism on the current map. His design featured straight lines at 45-degree angles of various orientations. As he put it, “Line, dot, that’s it. No dot, no stop.” While looking at the current map with its curved route lines and angled text, he asked, of the Montague St. tunnel, “Who cares if the subway has to go around like that?”

New Yorkers of course hated it. Their subway map had been an amorphous blob of shades of grey, red and green, and the new Vignelli map was a shock to the system. It had so many colors and lines and angles, and for some reason, parks weren’t the right shape and 50th St. and 8th Ave. was east of 50th St. and Broadway. That, from day one, seemed to be the sticking point. Vignelli’s diagram, designed to be used by those with a modicum of knowledge about the city’s grid and in conjunction neighborhood maps that, to this day, still populate subway stops, was a geographic mess. After seven years of complaints, the MTA torpedoed his subway diagram in favor of the first version of the map we know and use today.

Over the years, Vignelli would harbor grudges against those at the TA who pushed him out, but he eventually reached a detente and a reconciliation. He redesigned his map in 2008 for Men’s Vogue, and the printing sold out nearly immediately. The diagram appeared on a dress at Nordstrom’s in 2009, and he reproduced a 2012 version that currently hangs in my living room. His design formed the basis for the MTA’s Weekender app and the Super Bowl’s Regional Transit Diagram. Long a piece in the Museum of Modern Art, his diagram is seeming here to stay in some form or another.

Massimo’s legacy extends well beyond this controversial map. In addition to the ways in which his designs have created conversation and controversy, he also streamlined signage in the subway system. He and Bob Noorda, who passed away four years ago, reimagined the way signage works and appears in the subway system. With a few changes, his Helvetica designs remain in place (though he, like I, never embraced “Exit Middle of Plat” as an appropriate shorthand for anything). The general philosophy behind subway signage lives on in the Graphics Standard Manual.

Vignelli’s passing leaves that role of stubborn, funny, cantankerous man to someone else. His map, his subway diagram, his angles and font will forever live on.

For more on Vignelli, I recommend the obit in The Times, and a piece penned in The Wall Street Journal by friend-of-SAS Keith Williams. Michael Beirut offered up his memories of Massimo as well.

The Vignelli map, in wearable form.

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A map I don’t much like. (Click to enlarge)

As far as creative takes on New York City subway maps go, I’m a pretty accepting guy. I don’t hate the current map, though I find it a bit overrun with information, and I’ve always enjoyed attempts at reimagining the map. The Vignelli map, of course, remains the standard for artistic design trumping usefulness, and the KICK Map seems to meld something easy to read with something useful. Lately, we’ve seen New York’s system with a DC twist, a regional transit map and even a circular map. But now I’ve found one I don’t like.

Over the past few days, Jug Cerovic’s project to standardize the world’s subway maps has been making the rounds. As The Atlantic Cities’ Jenny Xie explained, Cerovic has tried to come up with a design that can be applied across the world and is both easy to read and easy to memorize. It otherwise fails as a useful navigating tool.

Here’s a little summary of what passes for Cerovic’s design philosophy:

Underlying all of this is INAT, a set of guidelines Cerovic developed to help him design maps that are easy to read and memorize. Key rules? Enlarging city centers to accommodate the crowd of lines and stations, and using a uniform set of colors, symbols, and labeling. He also kept all the lines vertical, horizontal, or 45 degrees inclined, and limited most of them to no more than five bends on their entire lengths.

Some might argue that uniformity wipes out the cities’ unique identities. But Cerovic says he tried to make each map very different through overarching symbolic shapes. For example, the Moscow design follows the form of a circle, while the Beijing design is more rectangular.

Cerovic compares his maps to road signs. “They’re not the same in the whole world but they’re very similar — so if you go to another place, you’ll seem to recognize the meaning of the signs,” he says in a phone interview.

That’s all well and good, but take a look at New York City on top. What is going on there? Bay Ridge and Coney Island appear to be due east of each other and of Lower Manhattan; Central Park is a puny rectangle toward the northern part of Manhattan; and the G train terminates north of Atlantic Ave. near both 7th Ave. and Prospect Park on the BMT Brighton Line. It violates the basic tenets of cardinal directions and map making. Even the best subway schematics have some bearing on reality; this one has none.

I appreciate what Cerovic is trying to do. I see why you might want to pick a universal design for subway maps, but if you’re going to try to produce a quasi-geographic schematic, it must have some relation to reality. It cannot be so divorced from the city layout to be useless as a map and as a navigation tool. But I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to share a new map with the world. So there you go. I don’t like it, but it’s a twist.

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Map: The subway coffee map

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New York Coffee Map

I’m always a sucker for a good map and even more so when it’s actually a subway map with a related gimmick. Here’s a good one via Reddit that’s been making the rounds. It’s a mash-up of the best Manhattan coffee shops by subway stop. Click the image above for a larger version; it should open in a new window.

Now, as with any of these “best of” maps, there’s bound to be debate. Eataly, for instance, is a bold choice for the 23rd St. BMT stop, and Pier NYC on Roosevelt Island is a seasonal outdoor food spot without much of an emphasis on coffee. But with the exception of a few dry spots — that Dunkin Donuts at 110th St. on the 2/3 sticks out like a sore thumb — it avoids chains and Starbucks. Now, imagine the same for the city’s bars or restaurants or even an expansion into Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote on the first-of-its-kind regional transit diagram that the Port Authority, MTA and NJ Transit had produced for Super Bowl visitors. While it doesn’t show frequencies, the map offers an overview of the region’s rail connections between New Jersey and Manhattan. As Sunday’s Big Game is part of the so-called Mass Transit Super Bowl, this map is designed to get people from one side of the Hudson to the other with few mishaps.

I’ve had a lot of inquiries concerning hard copies of this map. You can download a PDF, but for many, that’s not good enough. For the map-hunters among us, you can find small Z-fold maps at a variety of locations throughout Manhattan and New Jersey, including the Super Bowl Boulevard set up on Broadway, Penn Station and Grand Central. I’ve heard they’re also available at some PATH trains and Secaucus Junction. It’s small and with many folds, but one way or another, these things will wind up on eBay selling for obscene amounts in a few years. Grab one while you can.

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As await the first storm of 2014 to blanket our city in snow, here’s a fun little fantasy map for you: Chris Whong has reimagined the New York City subway in the style of Washington, D.C.’s Metro map. His site includes an explanation behind the project and a larger, zoomable version of the map as well. Striped of much of its geographical context, the map contains strong angles and bullseye station indicators. There are a few errors in the initial draft, but it’s certainly a different take on the form and functionality of a subway map.

Over at his Transit Maps tumblr, Cameron Booth offers up his take on the mash-up:

While the map looks great, it really also shows how unsuited the bold, simplistic approach taken by the DC diagram is to a complex transit system like New York’s. Vital information that New Yorkers depend upon for daily travel is simply nowhere to be found: the distinction between local and express stations, for example, or any indication of those hugely important free transfers between certain stations.

The express/local divide is a real problem, but I’m not so sure the simplistic approach is ill-suited to New York, as Booth argues. Rather, Whong’s draft is trying to do something that our standard subway map isn’t. Instead of offering up a navigation tool that attempts to bridge the geography/schematic divide, Whong’s draft is focused entirely on the subway routing. You have to be familiar with the streets or have your own map of the surface. Maybe that’s the better approach for a subway map anyway as no one can use the MTA’s offering to truly navigate parts of the city that are off the grid. Anyway, food for thought and debate.

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Ain’t that just the prettiest little thing you ever did see? Click on it if you’d like to see it in extra large. There’s a PDF available too.

It took an event the size of the Super Bowl somewhere out in the swamps of Jersey to bring all the various regional transit options together to produce a map, but here we are. As part of a push to convince everyone in town for February’s big game to take the train, the MTA, PATH and New Jersey Transit, with a design assist from Yoshiki Waterhouse of Vignelli Associates, have released a regional transit diagram. The diagram “shows all interconnections between the regional transit services, and highlights with a football icon those areas where Super Bowl-related events will occur on both sides of the Hudson River.”

According to the MTA, for those looking for a hard copy of the diagram, check out the guides publications distributed by the Super Bowl Host Committee. The group will also make folding pocket maps available, and I’d imagine those will fetch a pretty penny on eBay later on. The MTA also plans to release four commemorative Super Bowl-branded MetroCards, available at all stations.

As to service patterns, I discussed the plans in depth earlier today, but the MTA reiterated that it will provide “more frequent rail service” during Super Bowl week. All regional transit agencies plan to halt construction during the time period too to ease travel, as 400,000 folks — or about a third the crowd in Times Square on New Year’s Eve — descend upon the area.

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For some reason or another, we just can’t quit the Massimo Vignelli subway map. There’s something about it’s geographical distortions, clean lines and neat angles that make it an alluring piece of nostalgia. Perhaps the fact that it is in MoMA while the subways from the same era were covered in graffiti and generally unsafe lends it this aura of being of another time but also out of time when it was used throughout the system. Either way, it’s been 34 years since the MTA ditched it, but it’s still a part of any discussion on subway maps.

The reason we consider Vignelli’s subway map a collectible worthy of a modern art museum today isn’t because it was a great map, but rather because it was a great design that sacrificed geography for pure functionality. Parks were non-existent; stations were located in ways to make them easy to see but without any bearing on the street grid. Some people loved it; some people hated it. And that same debate rages today. I have a framed signed copy of the 2012 update hanging in my apartment, and while it’s a thing of beauty, I’m still not sure how well it works as a practical map of the city’s subway system.

The latest attempt to rehabilitate this map comes from science. As Eric Jaffe details at the Fast Co. Design site, researches in Boston have determined that maps similar to Vignelli’s are the best for human cognition. The idea is that considering the way peripheral vision plays a role in how we understanding our surroundings, maps with clear colors and straight lines are easier to take in. Here’s the scientific explanation for it:

Recently, some vision scientists at MIT developed a remarkably direct way to perform just this type of map evaluation. The research team, led by Ruth Rosenholtz of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, devised a computer model capable of determining how well people will comprehend a subway map (or any other complex diagram) in a single glance. The model spits out alternate visualizations called “mongrels”–twisted images that represent how our brains actually process the maps in front of our eyes.

The MIT mongrels draw on new scientific insights into peripheral vision. Research by Rosenholtz and others has suggested that peripheral vision operates by pooling together information outside a person’s direct line of sight. These peripheral pools sacrifice detail for overall impression to reduce the amount of data we process; they’re a little like a low-resolution JPEG in that sense. So the mongrels effectively show what visual elements–color, text, space, line orientation, among them–have been condensed into pools during the map’s journey from eye to brain…

[Based on the results of the study and an analysis of Boston’s current map,] a few things stand out right away. The subway lines take sharper turns that are easier to follow, especially the four now-parallel green line branches. Major transfers are also a bit more crisp as a result. The station names, now nearly all horizontal, can be distinguished (if not read). The map isn’t perfect–the silver line remains hard to spot at first–but from a perspective of peripheral vision the map does seem like an improvement…Of course, unless people are running for a train, they generally don’t have to absorb everything about a subway map in a single glimpse. But the basic lesson still applies: a map need not stay geographically faithful to be visually useful.

As for the Vignelli map itself, the MIT researchers offered some visual comparisons between Massimo’s controversial map and today’s cartographical mess. The images are telling as you can see the comparison from top to bottom between the maps as they appear in print and the maps as they seemingly appear to our peripheral vision. Vignelli’s map, in its updated form, is ultimately much easier for us to comprehend.

MIT scientists show how Vignelli's map is easier to comprehend based on human peripheral vision.

MIT scientists show how Vignelli’s map is easier to comprehend based on human peripheral vision.

Ultimately, of course, this changes little about the way subway riders use maps. If we’re in a hurry, a schematic with hard angles and clear colors is a much better choice, but if we’re sitting down to understand a subway system’s relationship to its surroundings, Vignelli’s map won’t do the trick. I’ve always though the solution lies somewhere in between, but map hard-liners hate to consider that possibility.

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A glimpse at a dream of a future New York City subway system. (Map via Vanshnookenraggen)

As Christine Quinn’s staff members taught us during this year’s mayoral race, it’s really easy to draw some lines on a map and call it a transit route. That’s what she did with her zany Triboro RX Select Bus Service proposal, and in doing so, she joined the legions of online denizens with access to a subway map and an illustrator application who love to create fantasy subway maps.

The idea behind a fantasy map is pretty self-explanatory. What would the subway look like if money were no obstacle? How would routing be enhanced and improved? How can we connect disconnected parts of the city? The best ones — you can find them buried in the archives on SubChat or the NYC Transit Forums — feature realistic routing and lead to that “ah ha!” moment when it becomes clear how much better the subways can be.

The most comprehensive set of fantasy maps belongs to Andrew Lynch, better known as the creator of Vanshnookenraggen. A few years ago, he put together an insanely well researched and thorough 11-part series on the history of the subway system that wasn’t. Start with the introduction and read about the IND Second System, ambitious plans for the Second Ave. Subway, Hudson River crossings and the Triboro RX line, among others. It re-imagines the regional transportation network in ways few politicians seem willing or able to do so.

Earlier this week, Lynch released a revised version of his future subway system. The post comes complete with a PDF version of his Vignelli-inspired subway diagram and a length explanation of the various new routes. It’s a sight to behold, and although I’m not convinced every route is a worthwhile, efficient or necessary one, the vast majority of them are. A system such as Lynch’s would lead to a very different New York indeed.

Basing his new future system, in part, on the MTA’s next twenty years document, Lynch introduces it: “The first FNYCS plan was what could be possible with money as no issue. Back in the real world where it is basically the only issue I realized I needed to distill out more realistic ideas that could use existing infrastructure better and develop lines that served the growing areas of the city while better connecting the outer boroughs. As traffic to the CBDs of Manhattan plateaus and a ring of neighborhoods along the East River waterfront develop from Long Island City, Williamsburg, and to Downtown Brooklyn I realized that inter-outerboro service needed to be looked at closer.”

A South 4th Street subway could be more than just a remnant of another era. (Map via Vanshnookenraggen)

So what does Lynch propose? He calls for a Second Ave. Subway with three lines at parts. Such a plan involves four-tracking Phases 3 and 4, sending the T to the Bronx, the revived V train to Brooklyn via South 4th St. and Utica Ave. and a new Y train through Bushwick to Jackson Heights. In the Bronx, the D train shoots east across the borough to Co-Op City while in Queens various trains go to La Guardia Airport, College Point, Kissena and Cunningham Parks and Murray Hill. In Brooklyn, the Franklin Ave. Shuttle is extended to meet up with the G train while the N heads west to Staten Island. In Manhattan, the L heads north up 10th Ave. and then east across 86th St.

We could debate the ins and outs of Lynch’s routings for ages. There is, for instance, no Triboro RX and I’m not sure how useful the Y line or his massive L train extension would be though I do love a crosstown subway running via 86th St. By and large though, these routes adhere to a few maxims of subway planning: They exist in conjunction with the street grid and, absent a sharp curve from the 7 line toward La Guardia, they don’t feature too many curves that would slow down the trains.

Of course, a subway system that looks like this would have required foresight years ago and tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars today. Still, we can’t just shrug it off as fantasy. Rather, it’s part of something New York should aspire to. We should have politicians discussing ways to build out subway lines quicker and cheaper than the Second Ave. Subway. We should embrace the idea of future subway systems and hope that we live to see but a sliver of these routes become a reality.

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