Home Subway Maps With service changes, MTA refreshes its map

With service changes, MTA refreshes its map

by Benjamin Kabak

I have a secret love affair with New York City subway maps. I currently have an extensive collection of historical maps that date back to the mid-1940s and possess more than my fair share of the rare Vignelli maps. Throughout the decades, as I’ve written in the past, the New York City Transit Authority and later the MTA have struggled to balance the purpose and design of the subway map with geography first taking a back seat to design and, more recently, design falling behind geography as the driving force behind The Map.

With the MTA set to eliminate the V and W and change the M’s Manhattan trunk line from the BMT Nassau route to the IND Sixth Ave. line, the authority has decided that now is as good a time as any to redesign its familiar map. While the authority hasn’t gone so far as to adopt Eddie Jabbour’s Kick Map or re-embrace Massimo Vingelli’s masterpiece, the MTA has refreshed the map. It now features more Manhattan, less Staten Island and the return of City Island.

The new map, according to Michael Grynbaum of The Times, is supposed to help unclutter something that has become overgrown with unnecessary information. The confusing spreadsheet of service times will be removed from the bottom of the map, potentially creating confusion as subway routes shift with the hours and days of the route. The call-out boxes that provide mostly useless bus connection information will be drastically reduced. Instead, map-readers will be urged to check out the MTA’s website for up-to-date service information. Considering that cell service underground is nearly non-existent, the map’s goals and its instructions seem to be at odds with each other.

Grynbaum has more on the MTA’s in-car efforts to improve the map:

A separate, stripped-down map will also be produced, to be displayed only inside subway cars. Neighborhood names, parks, ferries and bus connections will not appear on this version, making for a less cluttered composition that may be easier to read over a fellow rider’s shoulders. The authority says its goal is improved clarity — but the redesigned map also marks the latest salvo in a long debate over how to best represent a complex system that can bedevil tourists and natives alike…

[In 1979], the authority wanted geographical accuracy so that passengers would not be confused upon ascending back to the street. Hence, subway lines that wiggle and curve, reflecting the exact route of the train, and a simple street grid that highlights popular attractions and neighborhoods. Over time, however, the map acquired new elements like ferry routes and obtrusive balloons showing bus connections.

The authority now concedes that the map became overcrowded. “In its desire to be complete and provide a great deal of information, it took away from some of the clarity you would have with a simpler map,” said Jay H. Walder, the authority’s chairman, who encouraged his marketing staff to make changes.

For the latest iteration, Mr. Walder decided that the service guide, which purports to show a weekend schedule, was theoretical at best. The guide was removed, along with a growing list of handicapped-accessible stations that had begun to dominate the bottom right corner. Small wheelchair symbols will continue to denote those stops.

In addition to these changes in the way the map will be used, the authority opted to refresh the design as well. The subway lines themselves now have a grey shadow to highlight the routes. The water’s blue is a darker shade while parks are denoted in an olive green. Various other geographical features that have appeared and disappeared from the maps — smaller parks, islands unreachable by the subway — will show up as well.

But enough about words. What good is a subway map post without images? The Times has put together a great comparative graphic of the new map as it stacks up against the pre-Vignelli, Vignelli, 1979 Hertz version and the latest iteration of The Map. A few comparative shots are below.


In the old map, the Queens routes are a bit convoluted. The G train’s supposed trek to Forest Hills is demarcated by a dotted green line. The bus routes to LaGuardia make the area tough to decipher, but those dotted blue lines aren’t going away in the new version.

Now, we see the G terminate in Long Island City, and Rikers Island makes an appearance just to the northwest of LaGuardia Airport. The M has turned orange.


Gone is the M from 4th Ave.


Although the Chrystie St. Cut connects Essex St. to Broadway/Lafayette via the local tracks, the map shows the M meeting up with the B/D just north of Grand St. It is a subtle way of showing a new service pattern. The W is gone from this map, and NoHo makes its first appearance as the MTA-sanctioned neighborhood name. Additionally, the new iteration of the subway map features a Manhattan far wider than it actually is. The island has grown 31 percent and is now 83 percent wider than it is in real life.

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Jay May 28, 2010 - 7:10 am

Nice breakdown of the new changes. I too find subway maps rather interesting and have been trying to get my hands on some of the older ones for my collection as well. Any secret advice you can give on finding the rather old ones (specifically a 1904 IRT map and one from the early 1930’s)?

Alon Levy May 28, 2010 - 7:24 pm

nycsubway.org has a lot of historical maps, many of which clearer than the more recent ones.

Scott E May 28, 2010 - 7:58 am

Baby steps towards de-cluttering. Overall (from what I’ve seen on the website) an improvement, but it’s interesting to notice how they made northern Queens appear more under-served than it already is by covering up the LIRR Port Washington line with a text box.

I’m not a big fan of the gray shadowing. It’s more of an outline rather than a “shadow”, which stays to one side as if a light were shining from a fixed spot. I’m hoping it looks better in print than online.

Rhywun May 28, 2010 - 8:04 am

Not the complete overhaul I would have preferred but it’s encouraging to see they’ve tackled some of the biggest flaws of the current design. Especially looking forward to see the “stripped-down” version – if they do that one right it should be closer to what the regular version should be anyway. And they are right – the current one is nearly unreadable in the subway without resting your head on top of the head of the unfortunate person sitting below it.

ferryboi May 28, 2010 - 8:13 am

Although a die-hard Staten Islander, I always wondered why they bothered to add it to recent subway maps, since SI technically isn’t connected to the subway system. The addition of the Island took away precious map space, and it always made SI look much smaller than it actually is.

Poor 4th Ave in Brooklyn looks totally forlorn without the “M” train, and the BMT Broadway line below City Hall seems downright deserted without the “W” to Whitehall St. Grew to love the “W” as a neat alternative to SI Ferry Terminal downtown.

Like the new map, hate the “shadow” lines as they kinda look like another line running next to trunk lines. As stated above, I hope they look better in print than online.

Rhywun May 29, 2010 - 3:36 am

I just realized that for the first time in the 13 years I’ve lived here, there is now no direct connection between Wall Street and Astoria. Rats!

Kris Datta May 29, 2010 - 7:13 pm

The same was the case before 2001 when the W was first introduced. You’ll simply have to transfer from an N train to an R train.

Andrew May 29, 2010 - 10:15 pm

No, the N ran through the tunnel from 1988(?) to 2004.

Eddie May 28, 2010 - 8:23 am

Just a few problems with this new version
– the fattened Manhattan means that the map has lost its topographic status, the map is now more of a mongrel than ever before
– the now missing charts were necessary because the map itself never had complete station information
– the hard drop shadows add another “line” to add to its visual complexity
– Staten Island is now “quarantined” from the rest of the city!

Marc Shepherd May 28, 2010 - 8:51 am

No official map in modern times ever showed Manhattan in its correct proportions, and Staten Island was never shown in its true position. While this map may take further liberties, these things aren’t “problems,” unless you considered them issues before.

The real problem is that if you show Manhattan at its correct size (relative to the rest of the map) and Staten island where it really belongs, too many things have to be shown at an unreadable scale. There simply is no way around that, assuming you want the map to be usable for finding one’s way around the subway system.

I think the reason the charts were deleted was that, with service changes in effect practically every weekend, they were hardly ever true.

I do agree that the gray drop-shadows are unnecessary.

Kid Twist May 28, 2010 - 10:02 am

Except that the excuse for keeping this map instead of replacing it with a schematic diagram is that it is supoosed “geographically accurate.”

It never was, and now it’s even less so.

I’ve seen tourists using their fingers on a station map to try to figure out whether two points are walking distance apart and I’ve had to explain to them that Prospect Park is actually much bigger than a couple of Manhattan avenue blocks.

Thumbs down on the drop shadows, too.

Marc Shepherd May 28, 2010 - 11:56 am

You’re right, if someone is trying to get that much precision, the map is the wrong tool. But a schematic diagram (e.g., the London Underground or Vignelli) would simply make that problem many times worse.

Think twice May 28, 2010 - 7:10 pm

I have actual relatives who’ve lived here who think the map is geographically accurate.

To many New Yorkers this is the only map of the city they’ve ever looked at. To them Manhattan really is a behemoth and Staten Island is just a sand bank, when in fact (as we all know) Richmond County is twice the size of Manhattan, more than double the square miles of Paris, France.

Son of Spam May 28, 2010 - 11:24 am

– Staten Island is now “quarantined” from the rest of the city!

Oh, so many jokes, so little bandwidth. 🙂

To be fair, Staten Island does have its own map, complete with rail stops bus routes, for those tourists to use on their way to see the old Nassau Smelting factory site and downtown Tottenville.

ferryboi May 28, 2010 - 1:04 pm

One of my fave spots on the Island! Alas, when I ride the Staten Island Railway, I do miss the filthy platforms and pissy-smell one gets on Manhattan subways :-0

Marc Shepherd May 28, 2010 - 8:53 am

I have to disagree that Massimo Vingelli’s map was any kind of masterpiece, except perhaps the kind you’d hang in a museum and admire from a distance. As a wayfinding guide—which after all was its intended purpose—it was terrible.

I mean, it’s like asking a great artist to design a knife and fork, and he comes up with something beautiful that you can’t eat with.

Kid Twist May 28, 2010 - 10:03 am

Really? I learned my way around the subway as a child using the Vignelli map and I never get lost. Now where’s that QJ train I’ve been waiting for??

ferryboi May 28, 2010 - 10:28 am

It got stuck behind a stalled “EE” train! I actually liked Vignelli map and I too learned to navigate NYC subway using this map, which not only broke down lines by division (IRT, BMT, IND) bus also showed each line by a different color, making it much easier to track a particular line from terminal to terminal.

Tourists should have enough sense to know that any transit map would be schematic, and if they try to measure the distance from 59th St to City Hall by measuring it against the length of their finger, then they’re just being silly.

ferryboi May 28, 2010 - 10:29 am

Obviously, that should read “BUT also showed each line…”

Kid Twist May 28, 2010 - 10:34 am

“Tourists should have enough sense …”

See, that’s your problem right there.

Son of Spam May 28, 2010 - 10:38 am

As Ben alludes to, there is a fine line between being design-heavy and being function-heavy and the MTA always seems to be on one side or the other, never a perfect straddle, if there is such a thing. The new “shadow” on the map is a perfect example of this, same with the old bus transfer balloons.

It’s part of an age-old battle between designers and engineers, I guess. I recently attended a New School function where they spoke about the original map and sign design, and Vingelli was there, railing on about how difficult they were to work with, and how they have “butchered” his design, all without really taking into consideration the evolution of the system, and the functional changes in the way people get around the city. Not to mention ignoring other things like federal accessibility mandates and cost of maintenance.

I wondered at the time if Vingelli actually did not consider these or if it was sour grapes with them pulling his consultancy. Or maybe he was telling the audience what they wanted to hear.

Think twice May 28, 2010 - 7:16 pm

My beef with Vingelli’s map is that, for all it’s logical simplicity, it’s so severe and brutal in it’s pragmatic style. If it’s colorful, it’s only so to functionally denote the different routes. Folks must have looked at the mud colored water and concrete gray parks and thought “WTF”. Plus, I think by 1979 there was just a general revolt against Modernism in general and an appeal for humanism in graphic design again.

Rhywun May 31, 2010 - 7:11 am

severe and brutal

Yeah, the Vignelli map featured some awful design choices like the too-tiny line indicators and the sloppy is-it-there-or-not transfers which led to the public rejecting schematic designs forever after. Unfortunately the “humanistic” replacements which have reigned ever since eventually got bloated up with way too much irrelevant junk (like the bus boxes) by giving the public a false sense of geographic accuracy and leading them to start trying to use the things above ground.

Alon Levy May 28, 2010 - 7:24 pm

The present map has navigation problems, too, coming from its being not geographically accurate enough. For example, it’s not made clear that the Lexington lines actually go under Park south of 42nd. KickMap actually does a better job there than the real map. However, I still prefer the pre-Vignelli maps, which were geographically accurate.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines May 28, 2010 - 9:18 am

[…] MTA Ready to Roll Out a Less-Cluttered, Less-Informative Subway Map (NYT, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

The Funky Apple | A New York City Blog » Blog Archive » MTA updates the subway map May 28, 2010 - 10:02 am

[…] Whaddya think? Is it easier to read than the old map? [NY Times via 2nd Ave Sagas] […]

Josh May 28, 2010 - 11:54 am

That chart that was removed from the bottom of the map – is it just removed from the foldable maps that people can keep (which appears to be what the maps in the comparison at the top of the post are showing), or is it also removed from the maps that will be posted in stations? I don’t always know off the top of my head which lines go local/end at a different place/etc. late night or over weekends, and it was useful to have.

Andrew May 29, 2010 - 10:26 pm

It’s gone from everything. A big mistake, I think. Now there’s no way to tell that the B doesn’t run on weekends (or that the M is a shuttle on weekends), or that the 4 runs local at night, or that the 5 and D run express in the Bronx (when it’s running) runs only rush hours but the 6 express runs middays also (but all three run local on weekends).

If the idea was to remove clutter, the bus balloons should have been dropped instead. It’s a subway map. It shouldn’t have critical information on subway service removed while a bunch of seemingly arbitrary bus connections are retained (most of which are only of interest to regular commuters, who don’t need the map).

Is the back of the map being changed? I don’t see the point of including the commuter railroads and the TBTA(!) on the same map as the subway.

JPN May 30, 2010 - 1:05 am

Well, it is The Map of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, so while the inclusion of the bridges and tunnels is bizarre in a public transportation map, it is not so in the context that it’s an MTA map. (I wonder what the text box that’s under the subway map key says.)

I agree it’s a mistake to remove that chart. My guess on the consequences: people are forced to pay attention to the signage on platforms, which is intentionally brief, and thus, vague; ask other people who may or may not give you a correct answer; or rely on printed or electronic schedules along with the service change messages. The MTA may want to print a small guide to the subway like one that I got from the Washington Metro a few years ago. If done right, that’s good PR right there.

It’s possible in the printed map that service details could be shown in the space that’s currently used for advertisements, like the March 2010 map I’m looking at now has an advertisement for the New York Transit Museum.

Andrew May 30, 2010 - 9:21 am

But that’s the problem – that it’s become an all-MTA map (including TBTA yet excluding buses) that functions as a mediocre subway map. Why not publish a good subway map (which is all that 90% of the users of the current map are interested in), with a separate map showing the railroads, and, if necessary, a third map showing TBTA facilities?

The reverse of the subway map could then be used for subway-related stuff. For instance, the service guide. Or late night and/or weekend maps. Or a return of the strip maps that used to be on the back in the 80’s and 90’s (when it was simply a subway map published by the NYCTA, not an MTA-wide venture). Strip maps can highlight time-of-day changes and can also show bus transfers at every stop.

Subway car maps don’t have a reverse, so they should have the service guide restored to the front. Preferably on top, since the bottom tends to get blocked by sitting passengers. Or claim some advertising space to post a larger version of the service guide, separate from the map itself.

JPN May 30, 2010 - 11:00 am

Is it possible that people demanded the commuter rail maps as much as the subway maps? (My guess, not really.) That aside, publishing separate subway and regional maps is also my preference, and yet another goal for Mr. Walder to put his money where his mouth is for customer experience.

Here is a NY Times article of when the 1998 map came out. My favorite passage:

Mr. [Christopher P.] Boylan said revising the map was one of E. Virgil Conway’s first goals when he took over as chairman of the M.T.A. in 1995, in part for personal reasons. Mr. Conway, Mr. Boylan said, had always been bothered that he needed several maps to get from his summer home in Montauk on Long Island to his primary home in Bronxville in Westchester, even though the whole trip can be done on M.T.A. trains and subways.

Andrew May 30, 2010 - 9:11 pm

No, people didn’t demand anything of the sort. The MTA took over publication of the map from NYCT. That meant that the other MTA agencies had to be in on it. It had nothing to do with what the public wanted or what would be useful to the public.

Rhywun May 31, 2010 - 7:17 am

Yeah, the inclusion of every piece of MTA real estate was clearly driven by politics rather than usability. I hope they put the latter first this time around.

Josh H June 3, 2010 - 4:23 pm

I’m not so much worried about the subway CAR maps (I actually like the idea of simplifying those to make them easier to read over another passenger), it’s the giant PLATFORM maps that I think especially should still retain that information.

JAR May 28, 2010 - 12:01 pm

I strongly prefer the kickmap because it’s better for those that need to use the map most.
But, looking at the MTA option, I like the bigger Manhattan. I don’t get the “shadowing” at all. It adds a needlessly confusing element to the map.
And I don’t get why the airport buses are still that impossible to follow dotted line – you’d think MTA would want to encourage those routes specifically and at least make them look accessible.
Maybe they’ll update bus maps soon, too. Those seem to need it even more.

Think twice May 28, 2010 - 7:18 pm

+1 for the Kick Map. I like how Eddie Jabbour gave a big F.U. to the MTA’s bureaucracy and went straight to the people via his iPhone app.

Al D May 28, 2010 - 2:24 pm

The gray highlight or shadows are completely unnecesary, particularly with the map on the whole less cluttered now.

AK May 28, 2010 - 6:56 pm

I appreciate the fact that they got rid of many, many unused ferry lines…Now if only we could build a system that would create appropriate use of ferries…

Also, Atlantic Ave hasn’t been changed to Barclay’s station yet, which means another major map change is coming in less than two years.

Lastly, I approve of the “green” space down the Hudson– the west side bike trail is still dramatically underused– having a “park” on the river may also get tourists to waddle over there more frequently, which would be a real boon to the Far West side.

JP May 28, 2010 - 9:39 pm

disagree. every time I’m on that path it’s crowded. during the strike a few years ago it was intolerably busy.

AK May 29, 2010 - 9:25 am

Yes, during a transit strike, it was busy…but when buses and subways aren’t shut down, people don’t use it as much…

But I really meant that the path is underused for non-commuting purposes, partially because it isn’t an acknowledged part of the “City” since it wasn’t on the subway map in full. As noted above, to tourists, the Map IS NYC, and if it ain’t on there, they won’t know about it.

Ed May 28, 2010 - 7:36 pm

The new map is basically the old map with alot of needed decluttering. Since I actually liked the old map but thought it was too cluttered, I think the changes are great. I actually thing geographical proportions should be preserved as much as possible, because people use the subway to get to places located outside subway stations (and found the London map difficult to use for this reason). I understand that the part where the lines are the most dense has to be distorted, and am not too bothered by the wide Manhattan.

I agree that Staten Island has no place on there. Since you can’t take the subway to Staten Island from the rest of the five boroughs, it would be better if Staten Island got its own map in SIR stations and the space was freed on the main map. That space could conceivably be used as an inset showing lower Manhattan and/ or Midtown Manhattan, eliminating the need to distort Manhattan quite so much.

The best thing about the map was getting rid of the service grid at the bottom. I think they should get rid of the bubbles too. Oh well, maybe someday I will try to design my own map.

Jake May 29, 2010 - 3:23 pm

The map that’s up on Wikipedia is also pretty awesome. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi.....way-4D.svg

Rhywun May 29, 2010 - 4:08 pm

Your link is broken.

Rhywun May 29, 2010 - 9:40 pm

OK, I found it here. Not bad. I like the clean, uncluttered look. I don’t like the lines going at all different crazy angles.

Here’s my favorite. Apologies to the author (Maxwell J. Roberts) for copying it to my web site, but I couldn’t find the original link. Anyway, it’s his version of a London-style diagram for New York. Purists will balk at the extreme liberty taken with geography – but that’s exactly why I like it. It makes no attempt to show anything other than the stations and how the lines relate to one another – just like the Tube Map. I’m not entirely satisfied with how the author chose to depict express vs. local service – but that’s a facet that’s particularly difficult to depict.

JPN May 29, 2010 - 11:42 pm

Why not show the bus rapid transit (Select Bus Service) routes if you’re going to point out the bus routes to the airports?

Alon Levy May 31, 2010 - 5:40 pm

Not just the SBS; there’s a growing trend for showing the most frequent bus lines on the same map as the subway, to show people what options they have for trips the subway doesn’t serve.

Andrew June 1, 2010 - 7:12 am

There are dozens of bus routes that run at subway-style frequencies. The goal was to declutter the map, not to add so much clutter that it becomes impossible to use.

Bus lines are shown on the bus maps.

Alon Levy June 1, 2010 - 6:45 pm

Boston only shows the busiest 10 routes. Other cities have various standards for a frequent bus route map, usually depending on some frequency – for example, Portland’s standard is 15 minutes. New York could cut it down to about 20 routes by insisting on 4- or 5-minute headways throughout the day, and might even sanitize the map by excluding routes that parallel the subway like the M14.

Andrew June 1, 2010 - 11:03 pm

The existing map already has too much clutter (and I don’t mean the service guide). I want to see a good subway map, not a mediocre subway-and-railroad-and-bridges-and-tunnels map, and certainly not a subway-and-bus-and-railroad-and-bridges-and-tunnels map!

If you’re interested in riding buses, pick up a bus map.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 7:24 pm

I wouldn’t want to show many bus lines alongside the subway lines either, but SBS is a special case as I knew Boston included the Silver Line to its subway map. Prepaid boarding that acts similarly to a light rail system, should be considered for inclusion, that’s all I’m saying.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 7:35 pm

Then again, maybe not. Transfers between the SBS and the subway are (currently) MetroCard-only, so if that causes confusion, it’s best to leave it out.

JPN May 30, 2010 - 1:40 am

If Jay Walder is here to prove that he gained knowledge from being in London, please import some of these things:

Interactive map

Real time service changes

Step-free map (an excellent form of an accessibility guide)

Toilet map

All but some of the maps from Transport for London. Maybe I, as a developer myself, should look into these things…

(Thinking about the developers’ unconference, Jay Walder’s overarching theme was customer communication. I personally bookmarked Part 8 of the YouTube video, where he talks about the weekend service changes at 3:29.)

herenthere May 31, 2010 - 3:15 pm

Actually, Noho is already there in the current version: it’s overlapped with the 6 line, West of its new position.

Changing the service, changing the signs :: Second Ave. Sagas June 1, 2010 - 12:10 am

[…] service changes as immediate and sweeping as though on tap for the end of June, and while we explored the changes to the subway map on Friday, the entire bus and subway systems must be reconfigured for the new service patterns. At […]

Max Roberts June 1, 2010 - 6:34 am

Rhywun, no problem with posting my map. This one was intended as a pure intellectual exercise, can the NYC Subway network be squeezed down to the size of the London Tube map. Answer, yes it can, but it was never intended to be actually used.

Schematic maps have the disadvantage of multiply named stations, e.g. 23rd Street in five separate stations in Manhattan. The only real way round that is to double-name the stations, so next time I do this the map will be at A3 size, and with the express services done in a different way to take advantage of the larger size.

The other problem is that the NYC Subway is really four different networks, peak, off-peak, weekends, and nights. For example, the way that the B and D just can’t make up their minds in Bronx really makes showing this in a clear way on any map difficult. A good map can’t fix a bad network (runs for cover).

Alargule June 2, 2010 - 9:44 am

In response to the Maxwell Roberts map: Here is my latest attempt at trying to find the right balance between readability and diagrammatic representation, with the intended service changes implemented.
Inspired by Maxwell Roberts’ map (who might still remember my old attempts in MS Paint), but taken a step further by showing parallel local and express services as two separate lines. BTW, good to see there’s still an online version of your map, Mr. Roberts. I couldn’t find it on your website anymore, and the print in Mark Ovenden’s book is a bit too small.

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