Home Subway Maps From the express track: A defense of The Map

From the express track: A defense of The Map

by Benjamin Kabak

The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a talk last week at the Museum of the City of New York, designers past and present offered up their critiques, and I’ve burned many a pixel discussing elements of the current map.

Absent from last week’s discussion though was Michael Hertz, the designer of the current subway map. Hertz, who says he never received an invite to the event and was not asked to speak, contacted me to offer up his defense of his subway map and his views on the controversial history of the map. What follows are his words and views (not mine). I’ll be running his posts as a series with Part One today, Part Two on Monday and subsequent pieces over the next few weeks. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.

According to Michael Hertz, designer of the subway map, the bus flags are among the 'warts' the map has picked up as it has aged.

The current MTA New York Subway Map is still being debated despite of its three-decade lifespan. It seems that it has taken on a life of its own with no credit to me. I learned recently of a sighting in a college dorm in Serbia.

I have been — and still am — the designer-of-record for the Subway Map since 1979 and have lived with and performed all the revisions — mostly additions — to this venerable document for the past 32 years. It has taken thousands of hits over the years for design issues, from the “Designiacs,” and for service display issues, from the ‘Foamers’ a disparaging description (not mine) of rail fanatics. So the blogs and the print media are always full of criticisms, many of them harsh. But this is a free country, at the moment, and their complaints and observations are always welcome. But what of the millions of visitors over the years, who do not continually document their feelings online, but simply use the map for guidance in getting around? They generally succeed, with none of the problems that all the ‘experts’ seem to find.

These neighborhood maps help straphangers find their ways above ground. (Click to enlarge)

What I find strange is that after 26 years of having my large Neighborhood Maps (83 in all) posted in every station, I have yet not been made aware of ANY complaints. I’m sure that if designers ever counted the number of different families and fonts that I used (Optima, Helvetica and Century on the same map), my mug shot would posted on the entry wall of the Type Directors Club, with orders to stab me with the nearest available goose quill.

It also appears that there is no end to the number of ways that the map could be improved significantly by the bloggers, or replaced by designers banging on the MTA’s doors for a shot at the big city’s official logo on their work. It’s really amazing that New York’s tremendous system with its convoluted service patterns, such as full-time, part-time, rush-hour, night, weekend, running on different tracks at different times, along with its crowded, overlapping lines, and multiplicity of colors, is constantly being compared unfavorably to every system in the world — including a new one to me: Sweden’s Gothenburg Transit System — with the recommendation of employing graphics that seem to work well everywhere else in the world.

But which city is it, outside of NY, where the physical center of the city is not the transit hub? Which city is it that has three major hubs — lower Manhattan, Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn — and many other minor ones such as Broadway-Nassau-Fulton, Roosevelt Av-Jackson Heights, etc.?

Which city is it, outside of NY, that was comprised of three competing systems, all vying for the same little piece of real estate in the Wall St area and with different stations on different lines with different service, all within steps of each other? Nowhere. This city is unique. It should not be compared, ever, to London, Paris, Tokyo, or any other system.

Hertz designed a cutaway of the 59th St.-Columbus Circle area. (Click to enlarge)

When people get old, the number and type of unwelcome additions that appear on their bodies grows geometrically. The warts, moles and varicose veins on people are the service changes, the bus-connection flags, and the Staten Island inset that appear on the map. Every new MTA administration — and this is my tenth, working under successively, bidded awards — has its own vision of how the map should aid the rider in his navigation. As a designer I did not welcome the addition of all the bus ‘flags’ — recently removed from some versions — but I did the best I could with it because it came from a desire by the CLIENT to improve the map’s utility. I was surprised by how well it was received by a significant number of riders, although hated by many others. This is, by most standards, a very old map and is subject to ‘death by improvement’, unless carefully managed.

I capitalized ‘CLIENT’ because that’s who calls the shots. If Massimo Vignelli, John Tauranac or Eddie Jabbour were told that the bus connection ‘flags’ must be added to their design, would they refuse and simply walk away, or would they do their best, like I have done, to deal with this issue professionally, and without designers’ ego getting in the way?

The guys out there with their sometimes handsome designs, are creating maps, as of now, for themselves, not a real client. They approach the MTA, whom I have always found to be supportive of legitimate improvements, and show them their entries into the murky pool of wannabee maps.

When one of KickMap’s major contributions turned out to be a revisit of Massimo’s problematic seventeen-lines-through-Manhattan scenario, a methodology that has been proven over and over again to force more elements into the eyeballs of the rider, he touted it as an improvement. The MTA spent many millions in the eighties on station and car signage to inaugurate a simpler, trunkline color coding that reduced the number of lines. Why would he expect a warm welcome?

But more on this in upcoming segments.

Michael Hertz is the designer of many transit maps, illustrated airport directory maps and other wayfinding devices around the U.S. He designed the 1979 NY City Subway Map and has handled all of the revisions since. In 1976 he was awarded this design contract after creating five borough bus maps, and a Westchester bus map that were praised by the press and the public.

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Elizabeth December 17, 2010 - 3:02 pm

I love getting this perspective. Looking forward to Part 2.

Cap'n Transit December 17, 2010 - 3:11 pm

But which city is it, outside of NY, where the physical center of the city is not the transit hub?

Just off the top of my head: Chicago, Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Miami, Barcelona, Lisbon? Basically, any city where the downtown is on a lake or wide bay, or where the city limit is a river.

I liked the rest of his piece!

Jonathan December 17, 2010 - 5:49 pm

Cap’n, speaking of Boston, for instance, the subway lines all converge at a geographic location which is pretty much the center of the city. The same is not true of New York.

Benjamin Kabak December 17, 2010 - 5:51 pm

Chicago too where everything converges on the Loop.

Cap'n Transit December 17, 2010 - 10:52 pm

I was just in Boston this summer, and I saw the places where the subway lines converge. This is not the center of the city. Similarly, if you look at this map of Chicago, you’ll see that the physical center of the city is somewhere around Cermak Road and Central Park Avenue, and the Loop is not “pretty much” there.

Lawrence Velazquez December 20, 2010 - 2:52 pm

I think the point was more that there’s usually just one point of convergence to deal with, rather than several. It may or may not be the city center proper, but there’s just one.

Lawrence Velazquez December 20, 2010 - 2:53 pm

I do now see where he said “physical center,” and I think it detracts from his more salient point about one point of convergence.

Nathanael December 24, 2010 - 7:46 am

London has multiple points of convergence. They’re mostly “within the Circle Line” or slightly outside, but that just shows the genius of Harry Beck’s map: the ability to show all the areas of convergence in a near-geographical layout, while diagrammatizing the areas outside. The same principle could be applied to New York (the Bronx convergences are not important, and the Brooklyn and Queens convergences are right next to the Midtown and Downtown Manhattan ones).

The real problem in New York is deciding what qualifies as a “line” for representational purposes. Note that London represents all of the Northern Line as one line (via City, via Bank, all branches), and represents the Metropolitan line (local, express, short-turn, and branch services) as one line — but represents the Hammersmith and City line as a different line. This sort of decision goes beyond the map into the train labeling and announcements — and right on into the service patterns.

Frankly, New York has overly complicated service patterns (“local in Manhattan and express in Brooklyn — during rush hours!”), which makes the determination of what makes a logical “line” more difficult than it should be.

Alon Levy December 18, 2010 - 12:44 am

Don’t forget Tokyo, where nearly all lines converge on the CBD, and the subway is run by 2 distinct operators with several more commuter operators with subway through-service.

Ted K. December 18, 2010 - 1:56 am

Add San Francisco to the list of off-set cities. The old Trans-Bay Terminal site near First and Mission (ex-rail, quad-system local bus), the Embarcadero Stn. / Ferry Bldg. complex (bus + ferry + quad-rail), and the triplex hub at Fourth + King (rail + rail + bus) are all on the East side of town. The geographic center is near Twin Peaks.

Farro December 17, 2010 - 3:25 pm

I actually have a lot of trouble reading the old maps–the current ones are very clear to me, while the old ones are full of confusion.

It seems to me people just seem to hate the map because it’s fashionable..

IanM December 17, 2010 - 3:55 pm

I don’t completely get what’s being said in the “physical center of the city is not the transit hub” comment. Is he saying it would be easier to make the map if the subways all met up neatly somewhere in the center of Midtown? Or if the system was oriented toward the city’s actual geographic center (probably somewhere in Queens)? Most big cities don’t just have one transit hub, do they? What’s “the” transit hub of London?

In any case, I agree that comparisons to other cities are not always useful, especially smaller and less complex ones. And for the most part, I much prefer Hertz’s map to the more diagrammatic maps a lot of other cities use. You may have to stare at it a little longer, but it tells you a lot more about where you are and where you’re going.

Farro December 18, 2010 - 10:52 am

The geographic center is in Queens..

Lawrence Velazquez December 20, 2010 - 2:55 pm

I think he made a mistake by referring to the “physical center.” I think it detracts from his more salient point, which is that most cities have one area where their transit lines tend to converge. This makes it easier to scale maps to emphasize that area. New York has multiple areas of convergence, which are difficult to map.

John December 17, 2010 - 3:55 pm

As an occasional visitor to NYC, I have to agree with Michael. I’ve never had a problem with his maps, and have always found my way to where I was going.

Nowadays I do more with google maps and stuff like that to route me around, but I actually am not that impressed with how Google routes me around New York. For example, to get from LGA to Penn, it has me take the Q33 (or Q72) to the 7, walk to the Woodside (or Port Washington, or Long Beach) station and take the LIRR to Penn. While that might be the fastest route (on a good day), I would personally take the bus to the 7 to the E, so I don’t have to pay for a ride on LIRR. But I digress.

Brandon December 17, 2010 - 4:08 pm

I definitely agree about the kickmap. It helps me when lines that run redundant service are shown as one line. This way its perfectly clear that through a lot of midtown, you can get on any train that comes.

With the multiple lines, the tendancy for a visitor to go “well do i get on a B or a D” is too strong. On the current map, its easy (for me at least) to figure out “oh, i can get on any of them to go from rockefeller center to NYU”

I see this on BART all the time (even though at this level of complexity, i like the interlined map). Visitors and people who dont ride transit much say “is this the right train?”, and ive even seen people get off before i can say something, when they are already on the correct train, to wait for a train from a different line to get on, to go to a place covered by both trains.

MaximusNYC December 21, 2010 - 1:07 am

To me, the opposite is true. The current map jumbles together lines that have different stops. In my early years in NYC, I often got on an express without realizing it wouldn’t make local stops, or a train that at some point headed off in a different direction from the one I wanted. I still make this kind of mistake on occasion, if I’m dealing with trains and stops I’m not well-acquainted with. The Kickmap instantly and clearly eliminates that kind of confusion for me.

Andrew December 21, 2010 - 9:47 pm

I agree. The one catch – and it’s a big one – is distinguishing between local and express services. And people who don’t realize that there is such a distinction can easily get lost.

But the map does clearly mark which stations are local and which stations are express, and it indicates which routes stop at each station, and it used to have a service guide that spelled everything out in detail.

Once everybody is forced to make that distinction, navigation becomes a lot easier. If an A train is rerouted to the local track – whether due to an emergency, for a GO, or for regularly scheduled late night service – the announcement is pretty simple: “This A train is running local.” People going to express stops will get where they’re going, albeit with a few extra stops in between; people going to local stops can use the train and don’t have to wait for the C. In the Kick Map approach, the A and C are distinct lines. The A isn’t simply running local (since the Kick Map makes no reference to locals or expresses); it’s rerouted to the C line. Now anybody who doesn’t know where the C goes has to consult the map (it could be on the other side of town)!

Caelestor December 17, 2010 - 4:31 pm

The kickmap is ALMOST perfect. One improvement to it would be just to merge some routes along trunk lines together.

For example, the 6th Ave line can be represented by two lines: one for the express routes (the B and D), and one fo the local routes (the F and M).

BrooklynBus December 17, 2010 - 5:16 pm

I agree. That’s what Joe Brennan did in his map.

John Paul N. December 17, 2010 - 5:11 pm

If I take what Michael Hertz said about not being invited to be correct, I wouldn’t be surprised. The moderator made it clear that an invite was given out to a representative from the MTA, but there was no reply. The MTA could have forwarded the request to Mr. Hertz, but for whatever reason chose not to. (It is also likely that an additional guest would have lengthened the requested time for the discussion; that would have been more plausible.) The hostility towards the MTA was apparent in the event; I don’t know if it was wise to air that out.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hertz’s interview should complete the saga of the modern subway map, and I’m eager to listen.

BrooklynBus December 17, 2010 - 5:19 pm

Perhaps the MTA did not invite Mr. Hertz because they assumed he would have received his own invitation. Instead it was sent to Mr. Taurenac. One question, if Mr. Hertz is the designer of the current map which I am sure he is, what exactly was Mr. Taurenac’s role in the current map other than being on the original map committee, and why wasn’t Mr. Hertz invited?

Chuck Gordanier December 28, 2010 - 3:55 pm

No invitation was offered to the MTA to participate in this event. I manage the subway map at the MTA, became aware of this event and suggested to the sponsors that they invite Mike Hertz. (I was out of town and could not attend myself). I do not believe they did so and I was never contacted back for comment. It seems the sponsors wanted a forum for alternate maps and not representation from those responsible for the actual map.

R2 December 17, 2010 - 5:20 pm

Excellent. I eagerly await the next installments. Although this point has been made before, it cannot be emphasized enough that no single map can do everything you want it to. I find the neighborhood maps invaluable when I travel to unfamiliar areas (which actually are relatively few, but still). Those are the maps that are supposed to carry you to the “last mile”

Ed December 17, 2010 - 11:28 pm

I really like The Map, basically because I think subway maps should mainly be about giving people information about what stations they should get off at and what routes they should take, and I think its important to balance functionality and geographic accuracy. I hate the abstract designs like the “classic” London tube map because you actually have to use these things to get around the city (and I’ve been to London four times and their map tripped me up in some way every single time).

I’ve had or had a few nitpicking complaints:

1) Staten Island shouldn’t be there, because the SIR doesn’t link up to any line in the rest of the city, and there are fairly good diagrams in the SIR stations showing the stops. It actually makes more sense to include more of the PATH on the New Jersey side than the SIR, you can actually transfer from the PATH to some subway lines.

2) The chart of which trains ran went became useless once the service changes became more frequent, and the MTA removed it and citied that reason. Some people complained. I think the MTA made the right call on this.

3) I understand the rationale to include some, but not all, bus information, but in this case the clutter outweighs the benefits. What we should get is an improved bus map, which would hang in the subway stations.

But I like the KICK map too, except for the color scheme. There is no need to give each borough a different color.

I’ve seen a geographically accurate map of the subway line, and from what I’ve seen that would work provided you had an inset with a more detailed map at least of Lower Manhattan (maybe where Staten Island is on the current map?), though possibly you would also have to put Midtown and downtown Brooklyn in the inset. And other cities do have a more detailed inset of their central area on their maps, Montreal and St. Louis come to mind, though admittedly the New York system is considerably more complex.

Ideally, there would be two maps in the cars, one of the whole rail system including the PATH, the air train, commuter lines out to a fifteen mile radius, and a second of Midtown-Downtown-Downtown Brooklyn. And then in the stations, the metropolitan map, plus a neighborhood street map, and a map showing bus routes, but only the busses that pass through that neighborhood. Three maps in the stations, plus the more detailed Midtown-Downtown-Downtown Brooklyn map in those areas.

Farro December 18, 2010 - 10:54 am

I think that the only bus tags and the like that should be shown are

a. Connections to airports
b. Other major intermodal connections (eg Jamaica Station, Penn Station/intercity bus drop-off, etc)

Andrew December 21, 2010 - 10:00 pm

I agree with point 1. I also don’t see why the commuter railroads have to be on the reverse. Before they were there, the reverse had line-by-line strip maps, which showed bus connections at each station. That was more useful, and it would solve the bus connection problem.

I strongly disagree with point 2. The service guide included information critical to understanding the map. There is now no way to tell that the B doesn’t run on weekends, or that the M only runs as a shuttle on weekends, or that several lines don’t run or run local at night, or that the four one-way expresses operate in three different ways (on the Pelham line, some 6 trains run express from morning through evening on weekdays; on the Flushing line, some 7 trains run express during rush hours; on the Concourse and White Plains Road lines, every D train and every 5 train runs express during rush hours – peak direction only, of course). The service changes are changes to the basic service pattern, but there’s no way to determine what that basic service pattern is!

Chris December 18, 2010 - 12:13 am

Speaking of neighborhood maps, AFAIK, the MTA only posts the Lower Manhattan neighborhood map online. Why don’t we have all 83 neighborhood maps available? I think they would be useful since they are the only maps that show entrance and exit stairways.


Adam G December 18, 2010 - 11:20 am

They’re online somewhere, since the NYCMate app on my smartphone can download them. I’ll take it apart and see where it’s getting them from if I have time this weekend.

Lawrence Velazquez December 20, 2010 - 2:58 pm

Yes please! I’d love to be able to download all of them.

Jonathan December 19, 2010 - 8:44 am

Apparently, the maps were uploaded to the MTA’s site briefly (around 2001-2002), and quickly taken down.

No one seems to know the reason for this… Could be that there are simply too many maps to keep updated and they didn’t want to have bad info online. Or terrorist fears.

Lex A December 18, 2010 - 12:49 pm

I’m sorry commentor Adam G but: Someone was WRONG on the Internet. About the neighborhood maps and them being on your app: they were meticulously made by a map enthusiast not the MTA for your app.

Lex A December 18, 2010 - 1:02 pm

They were the first I had heard of to go to every station and recreate the local maps.

Donald December 18, 2010 - 2:32 pm

Does anybody know if Hertz designed more cutaways like the one for Columbus Circle? That thing is brilliant and I’ve been wanting to make some for some of the other big spots like Union Square, Fulton St, and Times Square.

ant6n December 18, 2010 - 6:42 pm

All I hear is:

Nobody ever complained except designistas. New York is exceptional. All these bloggers with their own maps are just a bunch of kids with crayons.


Max Roberts December 20, 2010 - 12:15 pm

At the bottom of this debate appears to be an MTA requirement for a ‘one-size-fits-everyone’ map, which suits corporate-branding drones very nicely, but not the general public. Different people have different requirments, abilities, and preferences. If some people want a schematic of the NY subway, devoid of supplementary information, why not give it to them? Experts and well-meaning transit employees neglect just how disorientating ‘information pollution’ can be. If other people want an all-singing-all-dancing topographical map, give them the chance to have one.

I’m a ‘designiac’, should Hertz wish to denigrate ten years of research into map design in this way, but I don’t just design maps, I submit them to journey-planning and preference studies. Visitors to my web pages will find plenty of documents to download and ponder.

And yes, I’ve dabbled with a NY subway schematic too. Compactness was the main criterion, and devoloping Joe Brennan’s double-line system of express/local. Apologies for what I did with the J/Z, but from a user perspective, this would be easier to understand than a skip-stop.


From the express tracks: Enter the MTA Visitor’s Guide :: Second Ave. Sagas December 22, 2010 - 3:55 pm

[…] his views on the controversial history of the map. What follows are his words and views (not mine). Part One of his piece ran on Friday, and I published Part Two on Monday. In Part Three presented here, Hertz […]

Nathanael December 24, 2010 - 7:34 am

“But which city is it, outside of NY, where the physical center of the city is not the transit hub?”

London. The physical center… where is it exactly?

“Which city is it that has three major hubs — lower Manhattan, Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn — and many other minor ones such as Broadway-Nassau-Fulton, Roosevelt Av-Jackson Heights, etc.?”


“Which city is it, outside of NY, that was comprised of three competing systems, all vying for the same little piece of real estate”


“in the Wall St area”
For Wall St. read “City”

“and with different stations on different lines with different service, all within steps of each other? Nowhere.”

Except London. And Tokyo.
“This city is unique. It should not be compared, ever, to London, Paris, Tokyo, or any other system.”
It’s like London. Mr. Hertz should get a grip.

The first schematic London Underground map is a famous design *because* London is hard to make a good map for. Tokyo has never really made an equivalently good map for its even-more-complicated system.

I don’t blame the NYC designers for failing to come up with a great map. London’s map, as originally designed, was only good because it was very specific to the layout of the London system. (It actually needs a complete redesign now that the system has changed structure.) Coming up with a similarly distinctive design focused around the New York layout would be *hard*, harder than doing so for London because there are more stations.

I think it could be done with some careful thought, treating the Midtown Manhattan – Downtown Manhattan – Brooklyn Heights – Atlantic Avenue area as the “core” equivalent to the inside-the-Circle-Line part of the London map, the portion which should retain geographical accuracy; and treating the portion outside as the “diagrammatic” portion. The problem of deciding which services to treat as distinct lines would be the next, more difficult problem.

subway map August 27, 2016 - 6:12 pm

It’s impressive that you are getting ideas from this article as well as from
our dialogue made at this time.


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