Home Subway Maps What impact a subway map’s design

What impact a subway map’s design

by Benjamin Kabak

A new paper underscores how the design of a subway map can impact passengers' travel decisions.

New York City’s subway map has a tortured existence. As I’ve written many times over the past four and a half years, the map is not quite schematic and not quite geographically accurate, and thus, it serves only as a loose proxy for navigation throughout the city. According to a new study, that could lead to warped perceptions about New York.

In a paper entitled “Mind the map! The impact of transit maps on path choice in public transit,” NYU graduate professor Zhan Guo explores how cartographical distortions can impact people’s relationships with the city writ large. The Transportationist highlights the paper’s conclusion (and a working paper edition is available online). It reads, in part:

The case study on the London Underground confirms that a schematic transit map indeed affects passengers’ path choices. Moreover, the map effect is almost two times more influential than the actual travel time. In other words, underground passengers trust the tube map (two times) more than their own travel experience with the system. The map effect decreases when passengers become more familiar with the system but is still greater than the effect of the actual experience, even for passengers who use the underground 5 days or more per week.

The paper also shows that the codification of transfer connections is also important. Different codification can make a transfer look more or less convenient on a transit map than in reality, which will either decrease or increase the perceived transfer inconvenience for the corresponding stations. This paper observes both situations in the underground case study and quantifies this codification effect, in terms of the number of attracted or precluded transfers, for four major transfer stations: Baker St., Bank/Monument, Victoria, and Oxford Circus.

Of course, these results are only based on the London Underground, a unique case in many aspects. Few transit maps enjoy such public popularity as the tube map in London. Many transit maps include prominent geographical features, which dilute the map effect. Other systems have different past or present versions of their transit map, which precludes a lasting and stable map effect. Many metropolitan regions possess an easier-to-comprehend urban form than London, which could weaken the role of a transit map in the formation of a cognitive map. The subway map effect in New York City is probably different from that in London. Therefore, readers should be cautious about making generalizations.

In spite of the last sentence in the excerpt above. Guo ponders how maps can impact transit operations and planning. A map, he says, “might unintentionally shift more passengers to a congested segment in the network and thus form a bottleneck” and a modification of a map could “change passenger behavior and mitigate platform and train crowding.” It’s the ultimate in human behavioral manipulation underground.

Over at Greater Greater Washington, David Alpert explored how applying Guo’s findings could impact the DC map. The changes, he notes, are not necessarily positive ones. A redesigned DC map would better show various landmarks in relationship with each other — Union Station’s proximity to the Capitol is one example — but it doesn’t necessarily improve overall system use.

“This is less useful in many ways than the classic map,” Alpert writes. “Most riders travel to and from stations in the core, and tourists or other riders unfamiliar with the system are most likely of all to do so. This map gives little space to that area and leaves large amounts of empty space at the edges.”

In New York, our map suffers from this problem in certain hub areas. It’s tough to tell how far places in Midtown are from the subway, and transfers are often distorted. For instance, the current iteration of the subway map makes no mention of the fact that the Q and N stop at a different platform at Canal St. than the R train does, and the transfer from the Shuttle to the C at Franklin Ave. in Brooklyn in deceptively far.

Ultimately, as Guo writes, “individual passengers and transit agencies should ‘mind the map’ in order to make their best planning decisions.” It is yet another consideration to ponder as the subway map, always a popular topic of conversation and debate, is revised and reevaluated.

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vb May 19, 2011 - 7:06 am

I like the NY map better then most other places. At least it’s somewhat geographic and shows you where the stop is in the city (just distorted a bit). Other maps like London or Moscow don’t really tell you where the stop is at all or what the distance between the stops is or which stop you should get off at to get where you need to go.

Bolwerk May 19, 2011 - 11:28 am

The big problem with New York is people just have such a keen awareness of their geography relative to a few other points. Everything is uptown/downtown in Manhattan, and (more or less) towards or away from Manhattan in other places. It would be kind of a PITA to change that on the map, though it’s doable.

An argument can be made for a schematic, but it would probably piss people off.

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Lawrence Velázquez May 19, 2011 - 9:28 am

One thing I’ve noticed is that people unfamiliar with the system will jump through hoops and fire to get to the stop that’s absolutely closest to their destination, without considering whether it might be quicker to get off at a slightly more distant station and walk for 5 minutes. This is compounded by the way Midtown and Downtown are expanded relative to the rest of the map.

For instance, my visiting friend once wanted to get to 50th Street and 8th Avenue, so she was coming up with some decently convoluted routes to get there. I eventually recommended a one-seat ride to 50th and Broadway, followed by a 2-3 minute walk.

ferryboi May 19, 2011 - 10:12 am

And this is nothing that any NYer didn’t have to learn when first riding the subway. There’s a lot of trial-and-error in learning such a complex system that can’t be boiled down graphically on a map. There reason it takes a few tries is that there are numerous ways to get to many parts of town, not just one subway line serving an entire area (like DC or LA, where they’re lucky to have ANY subway line in certain parts of town).

The map, though a bit confusing, is fine and serves its purpose. However, I wonder why the MTA doesn’t include a simple, larger Manhattan-only map to supplement the systemwide map on subway cars. Most tourists and newbies are looking to get around Manhattan, not take a subway to Canarsie or Woodlawn.

Bolwerk May 19, 2011 - 11:26 am

Hmm, well, they could replace one of the two maps on every car, but beyond that the answer is obvious: advertising space. They could really make the larger platform map geographically accurate, though, and include some key bus route information.

ferryboi May 19, 2011 - 11:30 am

Well, considering half the ads I see on subway cars are MTA “We’re Improving” type ads, I don’t think the agency will be giving up anything as far as advertising goes. Putting one large Manhattan subway map per car won’t throw any curves into the agencies ad revenue, but would go a long way to assist riders unfamiliar with the system.

Bolwerk May 19, 2011 - 2:28 pm

At least sometimes, those are probably stock ads. Dedicating the space to permanent maps really does forgo any chance at revenue from that space.

They probably could put a large on on the front and back doors, at least on IND/BMT cars. We’re not allowed to open doors anymore anyway, and they’ve started locking them on the G.

John-2 May 19, 2011 - 10:26 am

Along with a schematic that loses proportion in the downtown area, WMATA’s map and system also suffers (though less so in the past) from vague street descriptions of the station locations in the station names, relying on riders to know the location of buildings or general area descriptions to pinpoint where some stops will let you out. That might work for “Capital South”, but less so for “Metro Center”, or in the case of “Smithsonian”, where it’s spread out enough so that other stations are closer to some of the museum buildings.

In New York, the density of lines south of Canal, between Fifth and Eighth avenues from 23rd to 59th streets and in downtown Brooklyn is always going to make a completely accurate map problematic, at least in printed form. Maps for hand-held devices and computers that can be scaled as the user highlights a particular area could solve part of the problem, though it’s going to be a while before you start seeing two interactive maps per railcar (or at least until Apple comes out with the 24-by-36 inch hang-able iPad screen)

Larry Littlefield May 19, 2011 - 10:36 am

There is only so much you can put on a single map. There is much more information on bus maps, including the subway system in a geographically correct context, but they only cover one borough.

Both subway and bus maps are free, and should be used. Since I am familiar with the whole subway system, in fact, I only use the bus maps even though I almost never ride the bus.

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John May 23, 2011 - 12:02 pm

Am I the only one not bothered by the title? It seems to not make sense. Is that the point?

John May 23, 2011 - 12:03 pm

Oops! I meant “Am I the only one bothered by the title?”

Benjamin Kabak May 23, 2011 - 12:04 pm

Makes perfect sense really. What’s your beef with it?

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