Whenever I write about subway maps, my pieces or the comments that follow inevitably turn toward a debate on form vs. function. Should a subway map, I’ve wondered, aid riders navigate the city above or simply provide a more artistic schematic view of the train routes? Both views have their merits, and the best practical maps strike a balance between the two.
When the MTA issued a quiet revision to its map earlier this map, I noted how the MTA has moved toward a simplified map. As the authority said to me, “To continue to build on earlier clutter reduction, we’ve removed some streets and cemeteries that were not directly served by the subway.” It seems that the MTA’s approach is to overlay the subway routes on a rough outline of the city grid.
Earlier this week, Michael Grynbaum at The Times took a closer look at the map’s changes and found some interesting stories that illuminate the origins of the current map. Grynbaum picks Charlton St. in the West Village. I’ve lived in New York for my entire life, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you where Charlton St. is. For some reason, though, it was, until recently, on the subway map.
Amusingly enough, not enough residents of Charlton St. noticed its presence on the subway map. “I never noticed that,” Richard Blodgett, president of the Charlton Street Block Association, said. “Maybe I’d seen it and not thought much about it. I’ve certainly never heard anybody in the neighborhood discuss that.” But now it’s gone, and Grynbaum recounts the story determining the streets that cracked the map:
Members of the design committee that created the map in the late 1970s recalled conversations with the tourism bureau and a survey of leading maps at the time. But the general approach was summed up by John Tauranac, the committee’s chairman: “A lot of it was seat of the pants.”
“The whole purpose of putting in what could be considered ancillary streets was to give people a hint of where they are in relation to subway stations,” Mr. Tauranac said. “My memory doesn’t serve me well enough to include whether there was discussion over whether to include Charlton, King or Vandam.”
Michael Hertz, who also sat on the committee, concurred. “Sometimes we put stuff down almost arbitrarily, if we thought we had room for it,” he said. As for Charlton, “We could have flipped a coin and put the next street in.” Personal preferences, Mr. Hertz said, had no bearing on the decision: “No one said, ‘I want that street in because my grandmother lives there.’”
As Grynbaum notes, Charlton St. isn’t the only one to draw the short straw in this redesign. As Grynbaum notes, in Manhattan, Greenwich St., Bank St., Madison St. and Avenues A, B and D are all a victim of the map cuts while Warren Ave., Laconia Ave. and Boston Road in the Bronx have met their demise. Brooklyn’s Third Ave. and Columbia St. are but a map memory, and 20th Ave. in Astoria and 59th St. in Queens are off the map.
The end result is something far easier to read. With fewer white lines distracting the viewer, the map draws more attention to the subway routes, and that, after all, is its primary purpose. At the same time, though, it becomes a less useful tool for those who want to use the map to navigate above ground as well. Does Astoria end with the subway map and the N and Q trains at Ditmars Boulevard? Is there even a New York Ave.? Is the next major street east of First Avenue simply the FDR Drive? Alphabet City, you are no more. Even Charlton St., the western part of Prince St. that once hosted exits from the IND’s Spring St. station, will fade from our cartographic memory.
The form vs. function battle is one the MTA has been waging with its subway maps since the days of Vingelli in 1972. Slowly, slowly, the authority is moving toward a representation with the outlines of the boroughs and only a handful of key streets. As the grid fades away, this new map is a-OK for subway navigation. Any use beyond that is sure to get the budding map-reader dazed and confused.