While the MTA draws the ire of millions of New Yorkers who endure packed trains and climbing fares, it often seems as though nothing quite captures the imagination of a dedicated subsection of straphangers quite like the subway map. From its design to its creation to its geographical accuracy (or lack thereof), New Yorkers are content to spend more time discussing the map than we rightly should. If this were a crime, I’d certainly be guilty of it.
Today’s tale of subway map woes comes to us from Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times. Not only does he focus on geographical inaccuracies but he delves into the soap opera behind the map’s creation. As subway stalwarts know, the current bastardized iteration of the subway map grew out of the efforts to discard the Massimo Vignelli map. Heralded as a piece of design art that suffered functionally, the Vignelli map was ushered out in a 1979 redesign that saw various stakeholders — including Michael Hertz and John Tauranac — have input on the new map.
Essentialy, Tauranac steered the committee overseeing the redesign while Hertz’s company was in charge of execution. Tauranac was in charge of geography; Hertz overlaying the system on a diagram of the city. Both parties duke it out over the map’s flaws and faults. Now, The Times’ focus on the errors has the two men warring again:
On the West Side of Manhattan, beginning near Lincoln Center and extending toward the campus of Columbia University, Broadway is seemingly misplaced. It is west of Amsterdam Avenue at West 66th Street when it should be east. It drifts toward West End Avenue near 72nd Street, where it should intersect with Amsterdam. It overtakes West End Avenue north of the avenue’s actual endpoint near West 107th Street, creating several blocks of fictitious Upper West Side real estate…
Many New Yorkers have undoubtedly noticed that the subway map has its geographic faults, from peccadilloes like a wayward street to more obvious inaccuracies like the supersize island of Manhattan. But Mr. Tauranac’s sheepish discovery of the errors has at once rekindled and complicated a long-simmering debate over who deserves credit for the watershed 1979 guide. Michael Hertz, whose firm is credited with designing the initial template for the map, has long chafed at Mr. Tauranac’s calling himself the “design chief” on a project that has garnered numerous accolades, including a commendation from the United States Department of Transportation and the National Endowment of the Arts.
“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz said in a telephone interview. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”
While Tauranac, who also takes a jab at Vignelli’s map in the article, is content to battle it out in the press with Hertz, the truth remains that the map is a semi-fictionalized part of New York City. It requires people riding the system to have a passing familiarity with their destination, and it does not provide point-to-point directions or above-ground accuracy. As MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said, “This is not a street map. This is a subway map.”