Home Asides Mapping the potential service changes

Mapping the potential service changes

by Benjamin Kabak

In these dark economic times for the MTA, I can appreciate a bit of map-making whimsy, and yesterday, The Times’ Clyde Haberman provided just that. The NYC columnist sat down with John Tauranac, originator of the 1979 MTA New York City Transit subway map, to talk about a map-maker’s approach to service changes. I’m still working on a post on the evolution of the design of the New York City subway maps, but Haberman’s article is nice introduction. Tauranac notes how crowded and overloaded with unnecessary information the current iteration of the maps has become and ponders the few clicks of a mouse it will take the MTA to eliminate the W and Z lines from its maps for the foreseeable future. “If the official mapmaker of the T.A. has any sense,” Tauranac said to Haberman, “he’s at work at it already.”

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Ed December 16, 2009 - 8:18 pm

Agree with Tauranac. Get rid of Staten Island and the connecting bus lines (the information is not much use if you don’t know where the busses go) to declutter the map. I do like the fact that the NYC maps are closer the actual geography and less schematic than the London map beloved of most subway geeks.

If you get rid of the extraneous information, you can put the individual subway lines back in. I would also display the lines differently if they, for example, only run during rush hour or don’t run nights or weekends. Then you can get rid of the unreadable chart at the bottom.

After that, you can work on a bus map that is actually usable.

Benjamin Kabak December 17, 2009 - 12:01 am

Fun fact: The map released in mid-1995 was smaller but double-sided. One side had the peak-hour service while the other showed what nights, weekends and off-peak service looked like. What a great and user-friendly idea that was, and the extraneous information was kept to a minimum.

Andrew December 17, 2009 - 8:35 pm

That’s because the Manhattan Bridge was closed off-peak during that period, so service was totally different.

Kevin December 16, 2009 - 9:48 pm

This is why I really like the KickMap over the regular map. Goes great on an iPod/iPhone.

Scott E December 16, 2009 - 10:33 pm

Has anyone noticed the maps that have been recently deployed on many trains and platforms, showing the recently reopened Cortlandt St. R/W station as “s-bound only”? The current online PDF has got it right “(northbound service only)”; but that error is a rather foolish mistake.

Boris December 17, 2009 - 12:33 am

I have an “s-bound only” on my Sept. 2009 map, and I think it refers to the wheelchair accessibility, although that’s of course irrelevant since the station was closed (both ways) back then.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 12:52 am

I too agree with Tauranac that the current Map stinks. We can argue schematic vs. geographic all day (I like the idea of providing both, like some systems do), but regardless of which way you go, the map has to be understandable by both residents and tourists, without too much extraneous information. The current Map fails miserably. It’s too big, the bus boxes are distracting and useless, and most importantly, the distinction between express and local routes is baffling to everyone except long-time residents.

Benjamin Kabak December 17, 2009 - 12:53 am

most importantly, the distinction between express and local routes is baffling to everyone except long-time residents.

Funny how the ideal map in that sense is the Vignelli map. It was ahead of its time.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 1:12 am

Well, the Vignelli map had its own problems, starting with too many colors (which is understandable because the color-coding of trunk lines came later) and the poor presentation of transfer stations. I thought his recent update, or what little I saw of it since I couldn’t afford it :), was a big improvement. I’ve seen some better attempts at schematic maps, like the one by Joseph Brennan and an interesting one by Maxwell J. Roberts who wrote a book about the London Underground and whose NYC map is very much inspired by that one (can’t find a link any more, though).

I am very much in the schematic camp when it comes to the geographic vs. schematic wars. Because I think the general map needs to be as simple as possible. Geographic maps are provided inside every station, where they are very useful for finding your way around when you arrive at your destination. The MTA should release these maps on their web site like they used to.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 1:24 am

Oh, and I meant to praise the Kick map, too–it’s quite good.

Duke87 December 17, 2009 - 4:16 pm

I made an NYC map in the London style once, just because I thought it might be cool.

It is, visually, although practically it doesn’t work since the London style can’t really properly represent things that exist in New York but don’t there – like express service, letter/number designations, or midline termini (you wouldn’t know from my map, for instance, that any Lexington Line trains terminate at Brooklyn Bridge).

Andrew December 17, 2009 - 9:28 pm

That map is spectacular!

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 10:27 pm

Yeah, good job. Much better than the unpublishable attempts I’ve made.

You raise a good point about NYC’s complexity. It is *very* difficult to clearly represent express vs. local–which is why most maps suck in some way. The Maxwell Roberts map I mentioned takes an interesting approach by using markers at each end of express services. But it’s still baffling to a newbie.

Which is why maps like Kick and Vignelli which show every line might be more useful, if designed well.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if the MTA couldn’t simplify things by putting less focus on routes. By which I mean, instead of the N/R/W, we might have the “Yellow Line” with branches serving Astoria, Bay Ridge, Coney Island, etc. With supplemental express service along parts of Broadway and 4th Avenue. The resulting map would be easier to understand but less “detailed” than natives are used to.

Andrew December 17, 2009 - 9:27 pm

The table on the bottom of the map answers 95% of the questions anyone may have about locals and expresses. It’s too bad people don’t read, because I don’t think it’s possible to make that distinction purely on a system map, especially when service patterns aren’t the same 24/7. (What do you do with the N, which runs local or express in Manhattan, over the bridge or through the tunnel, and local or express in Brooklyn depending on when you’re riding?)

Perhaps the table should be moved to the top (where it used to be), so it’s easier to see on the train – right now, it’s often blocked by whoever happens to be sitting in front of it.

Brennan’s map is OK. I haven’t seen Roberts’ (any relation to Howard?). I find the Kick map very amateurish, and I don’t think it’s wise to think of each route as a completely distinct line.

I like schematic maps a lot, but I don’t think they’d work well in New York. A schematic map is great if there’s one particular station that you need to get to, and no other station will do – but in New York (in Manhattan, especially), there are often several stations that are close enough, and people will pick the one that’s easiest to get to. London isn’t entirely immune – Covent Garden is perpetually mobbed by tourists who don’t realize that, if they’re not starting off on the Piccadilly line (and perhaps even if they are!), they’d be better off going to a different station and walking an extra few blocks. But with London’s map, there’s no way for tourists to tell which other stations are within easy walking distance.

The geographic maps posted in stations are wonderful, but they only help once you’ve arrived at the station – they can’t help you figure out which station to go to.

I agree that the bus boxes are distracting and useless at best. And the railroads consume valuable real estate on the back. The problem is that the subway map, which used to be an NYCT product, became an MTA product in the late 90’s, so the rest of the MTA family got involved. I’d prefer to go back to the style used in the early 90’s: no bus boxes, no Staten Island (nothing against the borough, but SIR doesn’t interact directly with the subway, so it should be depicted on a separate map), no commuter railroads or toll bridges – but, instead, detailed route-by-route strip maps on the back. I think those were very useful at showing the precise service patterns, and it’s unfortunate that they were discarded.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 10:40 pm

What do you do with the N, which runs local or express in Manhattan, over the bridge or through the tunnel, and local or express in Brooklyn depending on when you’re riding?

You do like I do and throw your hands up in the air, and hope that if you’re riding in the evening that your destination is NOT in lower Manhattan below Canal Street.

I have put Roberts’ map up on my web site; hopefully he won’t mind. I can’t locate it anywhere anymore. It’s a very interesting take; definitely the most London-like I have seen.

I think I agree with you that the ’79 through ’98 or so version was probably the best ever official map. If anything, it was more compact and had a nice balance between detail and simplicity.

Max Roberts February 4, 2010 - 2:45 am

Nice to see my old map surface, its one of my very early designs. It was really intended to be an intellectual exercise, was it physically possible to produce a usable shematic NY Subway map that showed all express and local services the same size as the pocket Underground map? Answer, yes.

But I would probably do a proper usable version at A3 size, because on a schematic map, each station really needs to be double-named to nail it geographically (as per Vignelli). Five separate 23rd Street stations in Manhattan? No thanks.

I also took a double-sided approach, rush-hours one side, all other times on the other. Thanks to serice cuts, a combined map would be easier today than it was then. Even so, you have to note the MTA’s inconsistent approach to route designation, and the meanness of its off-peak provision, especially at weekends. A good map can’t fix a bad network.


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