Archive for Subway Maps
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of maps. I enjoy the way various graphical representations can serve to show the way a city works, and to me, it’s fascinating to see how map design impacts map usefulness. A schematic/diagrammatic map may show the best way to get from Point A to Point B without extraneous detail, but the extraneous detail may be necessary to get to path of travel from A to B. Essentially, there is no right way to present a map, but the philosophy of cartography and graphic design can heavily influence how a map is used by its intended audience.
In New York City, this debate centers around the subway map. Today’s subway map is not a work of great design, and it tries to be everything to everyone. New Yorkers demand a semblance of realism in their map and have long wanted major landmarks on the subway map. Tourists, meanwhile, seem to treat it as a navigation aid even though distances are distorted and few streets can be found on it.
Over the years, New York has toyed when varying approaches to the subway map. Early IRT representations showed Manhattan on its side, and over the years, unified system maps ranged in form from geographic to abstract and bubbly to some mix of both. No map, of course, engenders more discussion or debate than Massimo Vignelli’s schematic — the only subway map in the Museum of Modern Art and the only one to start Internet commenting wars.
Over the past few years, Vignelli’s map has enjoyed a resurgence. Men’s Vogue sponsored an update in 2008, and MTA’s Weekender map has delivered Vignelli to the digital realm. The designer himself participating in a robust discussion on form and function at the Museum of the City of New York nearly two years ago. So with the Weekender’s arrival, it was natural for the Transit Museum to sponsor a panel featuring the 81-year-old Massimo Vignelli and his two younger associates, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshiki Waterhouse, who both had key roles in updating Vignelli’s map for the 21st Century.
By and large, the panel was about Vignelli, his map and his design philosophy. In an venture, he has tended toward crisp lines, sharp angels and minimalism. That is, in fact, what he did with his subway map that proved so controversial. For him, he explained on Tuesday night, the subway map should show what the subway does and nothing more. “Who cares if the subway has to go around like that,” he said during his talk, pointing to the curve Montague Street tunnel on the current map. The conductor drives the train while the passengers simply want to know how to get there.
Throughout the course of the talk, Vignelli made it perfectly clear that no one loved and appreciated his map more than he did, and that’s likely true for any designer. It took a forward-thinking MTA head in William Ronan to allow modern design into the transit authority, and it took another — Jay Walder — to bring it back for the Weekender. The problem with Vignelli’s map, though, isn’t its look; it’s the functionality.
As Vignelli admits, the now-iconic subway map, so evocative of a different era in American and New York City history, was supposed to be one part of a four-piece system. We know about the verbal map which explains that one must take the D to the F to travel from Atlantic Ave. to Forest Hills; we know about the neighborhood maps that show the area around the subway station. Vignelli mentioned on Tuesday a geographically accurate map that he never produced as the third piece, and of course, the map with its route lines and 45 degree angles as the centerpiece.
For Vignelli, simplicity is key. “Line, dot, that’s it,” he said. “No dot, no stop.” Had the designer had his way, the subway map he made would have been even more minimalist with no water, no parks and just a nod at borough boundaries. It assumes a level of knowledge with the above-ground world that is still required today.
Vignelli’s map always faced a lot of criticism though. The colors were too numerous, and some stations weren’t in the right place. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he didn’t have GPS locations and precise station data, but still, it wasn’t quite right. The newest version corrects those flaws and simplifies the color scheme. Today, it’s in use as The Weekender, and Vignelli and his associates acknowledged how much better suited that map is to a digital realm.
With the need to show different service patterns at different times of the day, Vignelli believed digital maps are the future. “That’s why printing is dead,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to print a map.”
Of course, there’s still a public part of Massimo Vignelli that wants to see his map return to greater use, and he admitted as much. As the MTA wires its stations and brings technology underground, the easy translation from the page to the web for the Vignelli map may keep it alive longer than anyone would have thought after it was replaced in 1979. “The Weekend should become the week-long official map,” Vignelli said. Perhaps, with the right changes, its time has come.
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.
For the subway map and design buffs among us, this Wednesday night brings along a special treat: Massimo Vignelli will be talking about his iconic and controversial subway map in an event at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights. At the cost of $10 for museum members and $15 for everyone else, Vignelli will hold forth on the legacy of his map and its recent reappearance as the MTA’s Weekender offerings. Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, will moderate a panel that includes Vignelli, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshi Waterhouse. For tickets and more, check out this link, and say hi if you see me there in the audience.
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.
New York City has, for obvious reasons, a close tie with the now-completed 2012 Olympics. Our Mayor wanted it for the city while many New Yorkers fought against it, worrying about costs, security and added mayhem that hosting the global competition for two weeks would bring to the city. Ultimately, the Mayor still managed to secure his 7 line extension, and the city received two new baseball stadiums, a basketball arena and potentially a new soccer stadium as well. What we missed besides the Games themselves is hard to see.
Meanwhile, London just wrapped up a compelling spectacle of competition but managed to scare away many residents and tourists. The economic bump expected from the Summer Games may not materialize, but the presence of tens of thousands of foreigners making use of London’s transportation infrastructure may help Transport for London readjust the way it presents itself.
As we know, London has entirely eschewed a subway map that nods to geography. The famous Harry Beck map presents a schematic of the system with notoriously famous results. Riders unfamiliar with the complex geography of London streets often find themselves wasting time on the Tubes when walking a few blocks would be more efficient. The Olympics apparently laid this to bare, and Joe Peach at This Big City penned an amusing and insightful column on it:
With millions of visitors in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the city’s transport network is under more pressure than ever before. If you want to head to the Olympics, chances are you’ll get the next tube to Stratford, even though there are countless other stations that link to Olympic sites. Aware of the challenges of dealing with millions of extra riders, most of whom won’t be local and will be relying on geographically flawed signage for directions, TfL have made some temporary updates…
Route maps on underground carriages are now littered with pink boxes pointing out which stations can be used to access Olympic events. This photo shows what you’ll find if you take the Jubilee Line, and London’s 12 other lines are all looking pretty similar. Though relatively minor additions, they represent a pretty radical development for a map that has barely changed its visual approach in eight decades…
London’s underground network is the oldest in the world, and as a result many stations are named after once-significant local features (in fact, much of London is named after once-significant local features). The effect of this is the present-day destinations they largely exist to serve rarely get prominent placement on signage, with obvious potential for confusion among travellers. Though investment in technology and improved infrastructure is critical for the London Underground to remain efficient (and TfL is doing both of these things), improving the design of the network’s wayfinding tools also plays a key role. A functional city needs citizens and visitors that are well-informed, and with TfL rethinking its underground map and signage, London has become that little bit easier to get around, for locals and visitors alike.
Peach’s last paragraph above is key, and it’s something map designers often lose sight of. As I discussed last week, Massimo Vignelli’s controversial New York City subway map was to be used in conjunction with two other maps, but the MTA never embraced the Verbal Map. Thus, Vignelli’s diagrammatic map never caught on and annoyed many who tried to use it. In London, Beck’s diagram has ruled for decades, but the city seems willing to embrace some added information.
I’ve written a lot over the years about the search for the right map, but it seems more and more likely that the one right map doesn’t exist. The proper approach to directional wayfinding involves making sure riders have the right information in the right format at the right point. London is working its way toward a better solution. I wonder if New York needs to do the same.
There’s something about Massimo Vignelli’s infamous subway map that lends itself to a constant reassessment. It comes up inevitably in any discussion about global subway map design, and the torturous chapter in New York City subway map design in the 1970s isn’t complete without a full rehashing of the Vignelli controversy. This year marks the map’s 40th anniversary, and it still manages to inspire and infuriate all at once.
Today’s missive on the Vignelli map comes to us from Alice Rawsthorn writing in The International Herald Tribune. Under the headline “The Subway Map That Rattled New Yorkers,” Rawsthorn speaks to Vignelli on the 40th birthday of his map and reviews its problems. “The map,” she writes, “was, indeed, riddled with anomalies, but that was the point.”
Design buffs have always loved his map for its rigor and ingenuity. When the future graphic designer Michael Bierut made his first trip to New York in 1976, he took one home to Ohio as a souvenir. But many New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground. In 1979, the M.T.A. bowed to public pressure by replacing his diagrammatic map with a geographical one.
On the eve of its 40th anniversary, the story of the Vignelli map reads like a cautionary tale of a gifted designer expecting too much of the public or, as my grandmother used to say, being “too clever by half.” But its fate may have been different had the M.T.A. implemented Mr. Vignelli’s original scheme correctly…
But the M.T.A. only introduced one of four maps designed by Mr. Vignelli with the intention that, collectively, they would give passengers all the information they needed to navigate the subway. The diagrammatic System Map demonstrated how to get from A to B, but it was to be accompanied in each station by two Geographical Maps, one of the entire network and another of the local neighborhood, and a Verbal Map that explained in words how to go from place to place. Mr. Vignelli had never envisaged it being used without them.
The idea of a tripartite map has never truly caught on in New York City. Straphangers seemingly want to plan their trips in one place without having to consult confusing keys or smaller insets. The current iteration of the neighborhood maps operate similarly to Vignelli’s original plan, but the Verbal Map, above, came and went with little fanfare in the 1970s.
One of the aspects of the Vignelli Map — perhaps a better work of art than work of navigation — that I found most appealing is its divisiveness. Everyone has an opinion about whether it works or not, whether its better than our current version, whether we should one day bring it back. We can’t avoid it as part of our subway map legacy, and in fact, today, the MTA uses it as the basis for its online-only Weekender offering. Maybe its better suited for MOMA than for the back pocket of a subway rider, but it will never cease to be a centerpiece of conversation. For that, we’ll always have Vignelli.
A few weeks ago when Subway Weekender called it quits, a void opened up in the transit map space. While peak-hour, weekday service websites and apps are easy to come by, few of those services provide reroutings and diagrams of the way weekend and off-peak service changes impact the subway system. With straphangers voicing complaints concerning the ease of use over the MTA’s own Weekender offerings, could Google fill the void?
Today, the Internet giant announced the integration of service advisories into their transit directions. If implemented properly, this could be a big step forward for informing potential riders of obstacles along their routes. Google, which seems to be under the misconception that the subways serve only 200 million annually, introduced the new addition to their maps:
Have you ever arrived at a subway platform only to find that the train you intended to take is skipping stops, rerouted on another line, or isn’t running at all due to scheduled maintenance? Now when you click on any of the 468 New York City subway stations labeled on Google Maps, you’ll see whether any planned service changes are expected to affect that station at the time. In addition, the relevant alerts will be included in the step-by-step transit directions pointing you wherever you’re going.
If you’re looking to find the best route to see a concert after work or checking for any expected delays when already running late, this feature works when you’re online via maps.google.com and Google Maps for Mobile on Android. To adjust your travel around the alerts you see, simply choose another suggested route or change your departure time…
For everybody who lives in one of New York City’s five boroughs, commutes in and out every day or is visiting for business or vacation, we hope today’s update improves the ease and efficiency of your trips around the city.
So how does it work? To test it, I asked Google Maps to route me from Canal St. to Cortelyou Road a few minutes ago. As part of weekday work along the Brighton Line, Coney Island-bound Q trains are running express, and riders have to transfer to a Manhattan-bound train making local stops. Google Maps, unlike the MTA’s own TripPlanner, informs me that I have to take this disruption into account, but does not offer up the full routing. While TripPlanner routed me around the disruption, either by walking or transferring to a Manhattan-bound train, Google Maps told me to take the Coney Island-bound Q from Canal St. to Cortelyou Road while keeping in mind the disruption. It’s an entirely unhelpful piece of advice considering the circumstances as I’m supposed to account for the service changes on my own.
The beauty of Subway Weekender was in the visualization. Not only were riders informed of the changes, but they could see how it impacted subway lines. The Google Maps changes do nothing of the sort yet; they simply bring key information to the public and ask the public to put the pieces together. It’s a positive development but nothing game-changing.
While the MTA draws the ire of millions of New Yorkers who endure packed trains and climbing fares, it often seems as though nothing quite captures the imagination of a dedicated subsection of straphangers quite like the subway map. From its design to its creation to its geographical accuracy (or lack thereof), New Yorkers are content to spend more time discussing the map than we rightly should. If this were a crime, I’d certainly be guilty of it.
Today’s tale of subway map woes comes to us from Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times. Not only does he focus on geographical inaccuracies but he delves into the soap opera behind the map’s creation. As subway stalwarts know, the current bastardized iteration of the subway map grew out of the efforts to discard the Massimo Vignelli map. Heralded as a piece of design art that suffered functionally, the Vignelli map was ushered out in a 1979 redesign that saw various stakeholders — including Michael Hertz and John Tauranac — have input on the new map.
Essentialy, Tauranac steered the committee overseeing the redesign while Hertz’s company was in charge of execution. Tauranac was in charge of geography; Hertz overlaying the system on a diagram of the city. Both parties duke it out over the map’s flaws and faults. Now, The Times’ focus on the errors has the two men warring again:
On the West Side of Manhattan, beginning near Lincoln Center and extending toward the campus of Columbia University, Broadway is seemingly misplaced. It is west of Amsterdam Avenue at West 66th Street when it should be east. It drifts toward West End Avenue near 72nd Street, where it should intersect with Amsterdam. It overtakes West End Avenue north of the avenue’s actual endpoint near West 107th Street, creating several blocks of fictitious Upper West Side real estate…
Many New Yorkers have undoubtedly noticed that the subway map has its geographic faults, from peccadilloes like a wayward street to more obvious inaccuracies like the supersize island of Manhattan. But Mr. Tauranac’s sheepish discovery of the errors has at once rekindled and complicated a long-simmering debate over who deserves credit for the watershed 1979 guide. Michael Hertz, whose firm is credited with designing the initial template for the map, has long chafed at Mr. Tauranac’s calling himself the “design chief” on a project that has garnered numerous accolades, including a commendation from the United States Department of Transportation and the National Endowment of the Arts.
“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz said in a telephone interview. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”
While Tauranac, who also takes a jab at Vignelli’s map in the article, is content to battle it out in the press with Hertz, the truth remains that the map is a semi-fictionalized part of New York City. It requires people riding the system to have a passing familiarity with their destination, and it does not provide point-to-point directions or above-ground accuracy. As MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said, “This is not a street map. This is a subway map.”
Every year, Transit releases its ridership figures in a detailed breakdown by station and by weekend or weekday. The numbers, due out in May, provide a fascinating glimpse into the ebb and flow of the subway system, but it’s often hard to wade through the numbers. To that end, Visual News has released a visual of the 2010 ridership information in map form. Take a look at that infographic and marvel at how popular the stations along Lexington Ave. are. Second Ave. Subway, anyone? [Visual News]
My mom was the first to point out the great cover on this week’s New Yorker. Roz Chast, my favorite cartoonist, offered up her take on the Second Ave. Subway routing. I particularly enjoy the detour to Nebraska in between 34th and 42nd Streets. Sending the eventual T train out to Brighton Beach or even the Yukon Territories isn’t a half bad idea either.