The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a talk two weeks ago 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 the museum 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). Part One of his piece ran on Friday, and I published Part Two on Monday. In Part Three presented here, Hertz talks about redesigning the map. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.
I first met John Tauranac, when he was newly hired by MTA about 1974. At the time I was working on the first official bus maps of the city’s five boroughs, driven by the the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent oil embargo.
He began working on an MTA Visitor Guide which was to include a subway map in atlas form. MTA and Tauranac directed that this new map be geographic in style and to exact New York City scale. This was the pendulum winging the other way — all the way from the Vingelli map — and when assigned to the project, I began by cookie-cutting pieces of the NY City Planning Commission’s borough street maps and the so-called ‘stick map’ (single line street grid) to see how many pages would be required to fit the whole city’s subway station diagram. I was able to figure out the number of spreads we would need for the book but I soon realized that it would be far too large and would not work on one single sheet of paper. It could never be considered a ‘prototype’ for a new subway system map for public distribution. It might, however, have been used as the 46″x 59″ station wall map, but any new map we would develop should look the same and must be useable in all sizes.
At this time we were locked in to the Unimark color coding for the service disks and were trying to avoid so many colored lines down Manhattan which forced the very distortion we wanted to cure. So we opted for a single line in a single color: bright, red Pantone 185 (the same color we currently use for the 7th Av Line ). I think it worked fine in this atlas format but comments arose from all over, demanding some system of color coding for an eventual (one-piece) system map.
The Vignelli map was still the official MTA map, and at about this time, Arline Bronzaft, a psychology professor at Lehman College and Steve Dobrow, professor of engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson University, began to make their voices heard in the press, radio, and inside the towers of MTA and TA administrations. They felt that the riders’ inability to utilize the map satisfactorily and the consequent public opposition to the severe abstraction of their city was justified. Bronzaft was probably the single, most vocal and respected force, moving what was to be the 1979 map into the realm of reality. A world class expert in the effects of noise in the classroom and public venues, she was tireless in her efforts to push a new, more useable map closer to fruition. She was virtually the ‘Mother’ of the new map-to-come and was one of the first appointed to the TA’s (not MTA) Subway Map Committee under Passenger Services Executive, Fred Wilkinson.
There is a common misconception, perpetuated in print and in the blogs that this was an MTA committee, formed in the Spring of ’76, with MTA personnel aboard. This is not at all what happened. There were no MTA employees on board in November 1975 when the committee was formed at TA Headquarters, 370 Jay Street, Brooklyn, in the 12th floor conference room. There were TA employees, transit advocates from outside, and me. When the Mark Ovenden/Peter Lloyd book on Subway Maps of New York is out in 2011, many of the myths and erroneous information that now prevail will be addressed and should be permanently rectified.
The MTA was included only after the authority agreed to fund and administer my contract rather than deal with the lumbering and lengthy procurement provisions necessitated by the TA’s rulebook procedures, which would only slow the progress. Since my MTA contract for bus maps was still in force, there would be no problem in amending it or drafting a new one with the same provisions for this new work.
It was at this point, that MTA decided that there must be some MTA presence on the committee. Dean McChesney, John Tauranac and Kevin Doherty were then brought in. The fact that a new member, Joe Korman from the TA, was added to the committee late in 1977, confirms my notion that it was still a TA committee under Wilkinson as much as two years into its creation. The MTA folks, as well as I, had never heard Korman’s name before, so how could he wind up there unless he was a TA/Wilkinson appointee? Only after Fred Wilkinson left the TA, in the fall of 1977 for a top job at American Express, that the committee became an MTA entity and began meeting at MTA Headquarters in Manhattan, under Tauranac, the new chairman.
We prepared drafts for a new map with one color, red Pantone 185, for brightness and legibility of the track route but still used Unimark’s color coding for the route bullets. We tested it along with Vignelli’s among two groups of high school students. On Long Island we chose Sanford H. Calhoun High School (Merrick), the school my kids attended, and in Brooklyn, John Dewey High School, where Arline’s daughter attended.
The Dewey High students were generally subway savvy, but upon interviewing them and reading their comments, I, for one, was very disheartened. It seemed that about eight-to-one, the students preferred Vignelli’s map. But after all the test scores were tabulated, our new map, minus route-color coding actually engendered better results in spite of their very pronounced preferences.
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.