Archive for Subway Maps

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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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)

A few weeks ago, I ran a brief post on Max Roberts’ circular subway map. With a focal point in the New York harbor, the map presents the subway system as a series of concentric circles. It’s a fun map that highlights connections between lines and is generally divorced from geographic reality.

This week, Roberts published a piece on The Guardian’s website about the philosophy of his design. Roberts speaks a bit self-deprecatingly about his efforts. “A circles-and-spokes approach offers no obvious benefit for this city,” he said of New York, “and without a clear centre defined by orbits, where should the spokes radiate from? I should not even have attempted this map, there are so many others on my list of things to do.”

Roberts wrote a bit more about his New York approach:

A point of radiation in New York Harbour gave me just enough space to fit everything into Lower Manhattan, a perfect semi-circle from the Manhattan Bridge all the way to Bay Ridge, and left me with enough space to make the rest of the map nice and balanced. DeKalb Avenue is always difficult, and eastern Queens needed some thinking, but that was it, the design almost crystallised in front of me.

The New York subway has been forced into an unprecedented level of organisation…There is geographical distortion, and a few awkward spots where the lines cannot decide whether they are orbital or radial and end up zigzagging. Some people may object to its aesthetics, and geographical purists will dislike it in the same way that they distrust all highly schematised designs, but the overall spaciousness and power is harder to dispute.

I’ve always argued that geographical maps and schematic maps have distinct roles to play, each serves a purpose, and so any transport undertaking that refuses to make both available is short-changing its customers. A good geographical map shows where the network is, a good schematic shows how the elements of a network relate together logically. An uncomfortable hybrid serves neither role effectively. Whatever the usability study outcomes, if a product is attractive and powerful for some people, so that they enjoy looking at it, that is half the battle won for the information designer.

Check out the rest of the piece. It’s a good, quick read. Meanwhile, after the jump, this weekend’s service advisories. Read More→

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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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On the MTA’s subway map SNAFU

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Over the weekend, an embarrassing story concerning a subway map error hit the pages of The New York Post. Alexander Hamilton’s paper reported that the MTA had to throw away a bunch of subway maps when an error in the fare information section came to light. The March 2013 maps stated that the minimum purchase for a MetroCard is $4.50 when, in fact, it is now $5. Oops.

Now, according to The Post, TWU sources estimated the damage to be about $250,000. I spoke to officials at the MTA today to get their side, and they tell a slightly different story. I’ve learned that the MTA is estimating the damage at no more than $75,000, and the money will come out of subsequent map printings this year. As the MTA’s map budget is fixed, however much the agency burned on this error simply means fewer copies of subsequent map releases later in the year.

Meanwhile, even without this embarrassing mistake, the March maps were going to be chucked anyway. The MTA had printed them before the decision to recommission South Ferry had been announced, and the reopening will necessitate a new map next month anyway. It’s a sloppy, careless mistake that makes the MTA look bad in the pages of The Post, but it’s also ultimately a rounding error for an agency with a $13 billion budget. It’s not a real issue, but it just goes to show how public perception — rightly or wrongly — is shaped by press coverage of the MTA’s follies and foibles. The old maps will be given to an MTA licensee who uses them for subway-themed handbags or will wind up on eBay for subway map collectors to snatch up.

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The new online subway map zooms this far and no further.

Despite numerous website redesigns and the emergence of Google Transit, the subway map presented on the MTA’s website has long been a rather staid affair. A small image file or a downloadable PDF were the only two options, and interactivity was sorely lacking. Today, the agency took what I hope is just the first step of many in rectifying the problem.

The MTA’s press release on the new map touts it as an interactive solution that allows fine grain viewing of subway details, but I’ll let you be the judge of it. Available online right here, the new map includes a scrollable zoom and a click-to-zoom feature that first debuted on the Internet ages and ages ago. It doesn’t offer the ability to pick two points and receive directions, and details on subway stations and service patterns are elsewhere on the website.

Still, what’s there now is an improvement over what was there yesterday. “The subway map is one of the most popular tools we provide on our website, and we want to make it as easy and convenient as possible for visitors to the city and New Yorkers alike to get the most out of the map online,” Paul J. Fleuranges, Senior Director for Corporate and Internal Communications, said in a statement.

The “interactive” map uses the version currently available in stations. It does does not include the South Ferry/Whitehall St. transfer, and it does feature the H train in the Rockaways. The MTA says it will update the map as service patterns change.

As you can tell, I’m not that excited about this upgrade. It’s something that should have been done years ago, and it’s a rather simple improvement. To overhaul the subway map on the MTA’s website would require some programming skills. An ideal solution would be a Google Maps-style clickable and zoomable map, preferably with staircase locations visible at a certain zoom level, and a TripPlanner functionality using both real-time service advisories and subway location data. This new online tool should just be the first step toward such a solution.

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During FASTRACK, the nearby 4 train will provide alternative travel for the IND Concourse Line. (via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

Starting tonight at 10 p.m. and running each night this week until 5 a.m. the next morning, Transit’s FASTRACK program will shut down the D train’s IND Concourse Line in the Bronx. The week’s treatment marks the first outside of Manhattan’s Central Business District and parts of Downtown Brooklyn, and it comes after successful outages last year. It is also the first FASTRACK to return since Sandy.

During this week’s outages, D trains will not run between 161st Street and 205th Street in both directions, and the following changes will be in effect:

  • B service will end early;
  • D service will operate between Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue and 161st Street-Yankee Stadium (Note: Downtown D trains will skip 155th Street.);
  • As an alternative, customers should take 4 trains at nearby 4 train stations. A transfer is available between 4 and D trains at 161st Street-Yankee Stadium;
  • Free shuttle buses will provide connecting service between the Norwood-205th Street D and the Mosholu Parkway 4 stations only.

With the 4 train so close to the D train in the Bronx, this is a relatively painless FASTRACK. As Transit said in a statement, “These FASTRACK efforts have been designed around the careful determination that there is adequate alternate means of transportation, including enhanced services along some bus lines during work periods.” Still, the MTA is warning late-night riders to allow up to 20 minutes more for their regular trip times.

The next outer borough FASTRACK arrives next week when the 2 shut downs between Franklin and Flatbush Avenues. For more on the year in FASTRACK, check out my 2013 overview from mid-December.

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Courtesy of the Second Ave. Sagas Instagram account comes a screenshot from my iPhone. I awoke on Thursday morning to find that Google Maps — and with it, native in-app integration of transit directions — had returned to Apple’s iOS mobile platform. iPhone and iPad users could once again turn to the market leader in digital mapping and directions.

When Apple announced iOS 6 a few months ago, they made headlines with the decision to torpedo Google Maps in favor of an in-house solution, and the in-house solution was an unqualified disaster. Location searching was inaccurate; directions were wrong; and the lack of transit had many advocates wringing their hands. Google Maps returns transit to the mapping app with a smooth interface to boot.

Writing in The Times on Thursday, David Pogue wrote a glowing review of the new app, and he highlights the public transportation piece:

Along with driving directions, Google Maps gives equal emphasis to walking directions and public transportation options.

This feature is brilliantly done. Google Maps displays a clean, step-by-step timeline of your entire public transportation adventure. If you ask for a route from Westport, Conn., to the Empire State Building, the timeline says: “4:27 pm, Board New Haven train toward Grand Central Terminal.” Then it shows you the names of the actual train stops you’ll pass. Then, “5:47 pm, Grand Central. Get off and walk 2 min.” Then, “5:57 pm, 33rd St: Board the #6 Lexington Avenue Local towards Brooklyn Bridge.” And so on.

Even if public transportation were all it did, Google Maps would be one of the best apps ever. (Apple kicks you over to other companies’ apps for this information.)

It may, of course, strike some as silly to focus so much on a map app on one mobile platform, but iOS is one of the leading platforms. By omitting a native integration of transit into their app, Apple could subtly influence people’s behavior. Google, on the other hand, includes information for around one million public transportation stops, and Google makes it easy to get transit directions. Thus, it encourages transit use. The return of a Google Map application, available in Apple’s App Store, is a welcome one indeed.

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Lower Manhattan looks more than a little lonely.

As subway service comes back online in pieces, it’s often difficult to put the convoluted service advisories into images. The MTA can describe the services offerings, but it’s far easier to understand them when presented visually. To that end, Transit has released a map of subway service for November 1. The visual is available here as a PDF and should be a very useful tool for those who are going to attempt to navigate the limited subway system tomorrow.

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On the Night Map, both the uptown 4 and 6 trains provide a connection to the D and F at Broadway-Lafayette.

With the long-awaited opening of the transfer between the uptown IRT at Bleecker St. and IND station at Broadway-Lafayette earlier this week, Transit had to issue a new subway map. In doing so, the agency has decided to release a revised version of the Night Map as well.

The Night Map is the MTA’s recognition that one map isn’t quite enough. With overnight subway service vastly different than that of rush hour, the Night Map serves to provide late-night riders in the know with a proper route around the city. The first edition was available only at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn the museum’s Annex in Grand Central Terminal. It was quite popular amongst map collectors, to say the least.

“The first edition of the night map was a fabulous edition to our map offerings and a big hit with Museum visitors,” Gabrielle Shubert, Director of the New York Transit Museum, said. “Customers weren’t happy we only gave away one copy per customer, but because it was a limited edition, we wanted to make sure as many museum patrons as possible had a chance to get one.”

With the second edition of the Night Map, the MTA is expanding distribution. Still, only 25,000 copies will be available, but these copies can be picked up at some of the stations that suffer the most from overnight service changes, including all of the R stops in Brooklyn from 36th St. to 95th St., the overnight M train terminals and stations along the Queens Boulevard route that see significant reductions in subway frequency.

The Night Map is available online right here as a PDF, and the full list of stations carrying it comes after the jump. Pick one of these up when you can. Supplies won’t last.

Read More→

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