Home Subway Maps In which I find a NYC subway map I don’t like

In which I find a NYC subway map I don’t like

by Benjamin Kabak

A map I don’t much like. (Click to enlarge)

As far as creative takes on New York City subway maps go, I’m a pretty accepting guy. I don’t hate the current map, though I find it a bit overrun with information, and I’ve always enjoyed attempts at reimagining the map. The Vignelli map, of course, remains the standard for artistic design trumping usefulness, and the KICK Map seems to meld something easy to read with something useful. Lately, we’ve seen New York’s system with a DC twist, a regional transit map and even a circular map. But now I’ve found one I don’t like.

Over the past few days, Jug Cerovic’s project to standardize the world’s subway maps has been making the rounds. As The Atlantic Cities’ Jenny Xie explained, Cerovic has tried to come up with a design that can be applied across the world and is both easy to read and easy to memorize. It otherwise fails as a useful navigating tool.

Here’s a little summary of what passes for Cerovic’s design philosophy:

Underlying all of this is INAT, a set of guidelines Cerovic developed to help him design maps that are easy to read and memorize. Key rules? Enlarging city centers to accommodate the crowd of lines and stations, and using a uniform set of colors, symbols, and labeling. He also kept all the lines vertical, horizontal, or 45 degrees inclined, and limited most of them to no more than five bends on their entire lengths.

Some might argue that uniformity wipes out the cities’ unique identities. But Cerovic says he tried to make each map very different through overarching symbolic shapes. For example, the Moscow design follows the form of a circle, while the Beijing design is more rectangular.

Cerovic compares his maps to road signs. “They’re not the same in the whole world but they’re very similar — so if you go to another place, you’ll seem to recognize the meaning of the signs,” he says in a phone interview.

That’s all well and good, but take a look at New York City on top. What is going on there? Bay Ridge and Coney Island appear to be due east of each other and of Lower Manhattan; Central Park is a puny rectangle toward the northern part of Manhattan; and the G train terminates north of Atlantic Ave. near both 7th Ave. and Prospect Park on the BMT Brighton Line. It violates the basic tenets of cardinal directions and map making. Even the best subway schematics have some bearing on reality; this one has none.

I appreciate what Cerovic is trying to do. I see why you might want to pick a universal design for subway maps, but if you’re going to try to produce a quasi-geographic schematic, it must have some relation to reality. It cannot be so divorced from the city layout to be useless as a map and as a navigation tool. But I’m not one to pass up an opportunity to share a new map with the world. So there you go. I don’t like it, but it’s a twist.

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Patrick O'Hara April 11, 2014 - 12:40 am

I think the map could be a pretty good map if the geography wasn’t so ridiculously distorted. If you adopted a style and format similar to whatever ‘standard’ they want to establish and then just apply it to a map that is laid out similarly to today’s, it could be quite effective.

But geography, street layout, etc. is very important to the way the New York City subway’s system is laid out, and ignoring that only adds to the confusion. Even today’s current map dramatizes the size of Manhattan for clarity, but only in a small way, and you can still manage to figure out where everything is.

Brian April 11, 2014 - 12:51 am

At first I thought that was a fantasy subway map that neglected southern Brooklyn but then I read on to discover what an abomination it is. that is the worst map I have ever seen. at least most of the cute attempts (i.e the DC) tried to at least somewhat portray a little geographic integrity but that is just awful. for a map that “limit the bends” it bent the entire city. Citi Field is further north than Yankee Stadium on that map all of Brooklyn is bent to who knows where. I Dont even know what is going on with the Rockaways Apparently Jamaica Bay vanished and Far Rockaway is just a few stops down the line from Rockaway Park. And then colors are all over the place. All in all, for something that tries to simplify, it makes it more complex and makes no sense at all. I give this an F– and this guy should be ashamed to call himself a map maker.

Quirk April 11, 2014 - 2:49 am


John-2 April 11, 2014 - 1:36 am

If you only wanted the map for 59th Street to the Battery, it’s serviceable. The problem is in limiting the distortion in the Midtown/Lower Manhattan area in order to fit the pre-determined space, it shows total disdain for the upper part of the borough and for The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

RichardB April 11, 2014 - 3:45 am

As a Londoner who has had difficulty using the standard New York subway map I agree. Superficially Cerovic’s map looks quite good but it is deeply flawed. The map maker has produced an equivalent one for London which is also an abomination. There he has retained the stylised river Thames as per the London Underground map but then placed most of the branches of Docklands Light Railway (DLR) south of the river when in fact with one exception they are located north of the river. The logic in retaining the Thames on the Mao is completely lost.

I think like Max Roberts who has produced a number of alternative maps that people do need two types of maps to be readily available one which is primarily geographical for example the current New York map and one which is more like a circuit diagram such as the classic London map or the Vignelli map? Technically with the circuit diagram format you could dispense with all geographical features and the authorities tried that recently in London by deleting the river Thames. This led to an outcry as people find this feature (although heavily stylised) very helpful. The river was reinstated at the direct instruction of the mayor. However I think if you accept that a circuit diagram map is to be created you have to accept that any retained geographical features such as rivers, coastlines or items such as Central Park may have to be changed from their correct geographical form to fit in. For example the river Thames on the London Tube map does not resemble the shape of the river in actuality but it is a device which helps orientation similar to the arrow pointing north which appears on many maps.

Speaking personally I favour the circuit diagram approach but I understand and respect the utility of the geographically correct variant. I do find the regular New York subway map confusing although I accept if I were using the subway on a daily basis I would acclimatise. The Vignelli map is better but in some ways although beautiful it is a little too busy to my eyes. I prefer Max Roberts’ alternative which is a compromise between the two camps. I have appended a link to this and would be interested to hear the feedback on this. To see the Max Roberts map go to the web address pasted below:


Personally I think New York should have a map which displays the other rail services as well such as Metro North, LIRR, PATH etc. my favourite London map is the combined rail and Tube map which gives a much greater breadth of routes especially south of the river. To see what I mean see below:


Metro North the LIRR etc are all part of the rail based transit offering and preferably there should be a map showing g all of these in addition to the subway lines.

Brian April 11, 2014 - 4:25 am

I see what you mean about the DLR, that is pretty bad. Another thing that makes the inclusion of the river weird is how it abruptly ends at both ends on his map (much more obvious near the airport) thats just downright laughable, the river just stops.

Elvis Delgado April 11, 2014 - 12:53 pm

Max Roberts, a psychologist at the University of Essex (UK), is the only person who seems to be approaching this in a scientific and objective manner. Rather than simply saying “this looks good to me” or “it works for London, so why not do it for Timbuktu”, he has tested and measured the effects of varying all sorts of design parameters.

Once thing is clear – contrary to what Jug Cerovic would like to believe, one size does not fit all. Standardizing on a single approach will inevitably produce maps which are inappropriate for certain systems. This NYC map is a case in point, but in general, a good design has to deal with the peculiarities of a given system in the “right way”. And that way is not the same for all systems.

I highly recommend Dr. Roberts’ book “Underground Maps Unravelled” which he sells directly at:


(I don’t profit from this, it’s just a great read!)

Henry April 11, 2014 - 7:57 pm

I’m not a big fan of the Roberts diagram; while I appreciate what he tries to do, I’m not a fan of some of the geographic liberties taken (7th Av doesn’t bend, nor does it really have a need to in his map), and of the rather dull shades of color he is using; while I understand the logic behind shading express and local trunk services differently, his colors are too dull and weaken each trunk line’s color identity (and it doesn’t seem particularly colorblind friendly; I can barely distinguish the F and G running together in Brooklyn.) The use of crossroad names at station also makes the map look rather busy.

The best map in my opinion would be the 1958 Salomon map. Salomon came up with the idea of one-color one-trunk 30 years before the Hertz map implemented it, but his map just used a one-color, one-system scheme (one for the IND, one for the IRT, and one for the BMT.) I certainly think it’s a much nicer, softer diagram than the Vignelli or anything that came after it, and despite its various shortcomings it seems more representative of New York than staid old Helvetica. However, it seems that in the great map debate, Salomon has been resigned to the heap of history.


Nathanael April 12, 2014 - 12:26 pm

You know, I agree with you. I really like the 1958 Salomon map.

There’s something else about it, though: the names! I actually think the named routes were clearer than the current numbers and letters.

Nathanael April 12, 2014 - 12:28 pm

And another thing! All the stations have BOTH street and avenue names, as in “77 St. (4 Av)”. The station naming is much more helpful.

BruceNY April 12, 2014 - 1:35 pm

I have the 1964 World’s Fair version of this framed and hanging up in my apartment! The back of the map is a map of the World’s Fair, and has an artist’s renderings of the brand new R-36 “Bluebird” fleet (hands down the most attractive livery in NYC subway history). And yes, the map is easy to read.

Eddie April 11, 2014 - 7:38 am

This nyc map is obviously flawed (biggest issue is a lack of complete station information!) but his goal is right on: a universal transit vocabulary. It is our goal too – and we’re going to do it right! 😉

jfruh April 11, 2014 - 7:51 am

I do have to say that for all its flaws this schematic makes the tangle of intersecting lines in downtown Brooklyn more legible to me than any other map I’ve seen.

Jonathan R April 11, 2014 - 8:17 am

Fail. It’s difficult to see the transfer points for two reasons; there’s no legend at each stop of which trains stop there, and the weaving of the lines makes it difficult to follow the eye to see which colored line belongs to which lettered line.

Also, see the Central Park West trains; the spacing between the colored lines makes it hard to tell how many lines are there, five or four.

Joshua D April 11, 2014 - 8:29 am

Besides the geography of Brooklyn, etc. being distorted, I’m bothered by the colors. The 1 and the 6 are in a pale color and look like they are lesser lines than the 2,3,4, and 5 or are not running or abandoned. Also using a “P” for PATH or “L” for LIRR and “NJ” for New Jersey Transit is just confusing (especially the “L” for LIRR and the L line) since they are separate systems.

Brooklyn Cowbell Guy April 14, 2014 - 9:13 am

NJ for NJ Transit should be very easy to figure out.

Kevin Walsh April 11, 2014 - 10:03 am

This should succeed the Tauranac map as the NYC standard, and should be used for all American cities’ transit systems.

Why blast this map as geographically inexact, but laud the Vignelli map even though it’s … geographically inexact? I always found the Vignelli cold and inorganic. This map strikes the right balance.

I have always liked maps to be detail-oriented and information-laden and if this map is a bit off with the geography, I’ll accept it.

Bolwerk April 11, 2014 - 12:59 pm

Concur with Kevin in part. It has bugs, not design flaws, that Vignelli doesn’t have.

But it shares a problem with most of these fantasy maps: as I say almost every time this comes up, New Yorkers are just keenly aware of geography and find maps that don’t respect geography disorienting. Nothing inherently wrong with these wrong directions in Brooklyn and Queens if all you need is a diagram. But nobody just wants a diagram.

John-2 April 11, 2014 - 2:49 pm

If nothing else, I’d add a tad more blue on the low-mid right side of the map, so some poor schlub doesn’t think it’s a five-minute walk through city streets from Beach 116th-Rockaway Park to Flatbush-Nostrand avenues (Hey, why bother with the Q35 bus at all when they’re that close?)

Henry April 11, 2014 - 7:59 pm

Vignelli is inexact, but this is just downright wrong. There’s a difference between putting 50th and 8th east of 50th and Broadway, and putting Coney Island at the same east-west latitude as the Battery.

BrooklynBus April 13, 2014 - 11:40 am

I agree that it is not that bad. Certainly no worse than Vignelli.. Somehow the messed up geography doesn’t bother me that much. No one criticizes the London Underground schematic for poor geography. Schematics are only interested in the relationship between the lines and this map does a good job of that. It is not a map, and let’s not forget that.

aestrivex April 11, 2014 - 10:43 am

Bowery St o_O

Patrick O'Hara April 11, 2014 - 12:43 pm

There are several other small errors like that all across the map as well.

Billy G April 11, 2014 - 8:54 pm

“Clarck St” in Downtown Brooklyn
Wakefield on the New Haven side of the fork
The fork of Hudson + Harlem/New Haven on Manhattan Island
Pavonia Newport (Old name)

I bet there are other problems, too.

Henry April 12, 2014 - 3:38 am

“Green point Av”

Someone April 15, 2014 - 4:41 pm

“Cortland Street”

Keith Williams April 11, 2014 - 11:58 am

The compromise between showing the network and showing the geography is impossible with a system like ours. Pick one (Vignelli) or the other (the current map, sort of): http://wp.me/p4amSR-29Q

Alain April 11, 2014 - 12:39 pm

I like it.

Erik Baard April 11, 2014 - 1:02 pm

Densely populated cities with real city cores are by definition pedestrian cities. A map that so distorts geography is a great disservice to those legs of trips. Of course this is becoming increasingly moot in the age of smart navigation.

The Wall Breakers April 11, 2014 - 1:28 pm

I’m both a subway enthusiast and a graphic designer, but for some reason I find this map very hard to look at. Maybe it’s just because I’m unaccustomed to using it, but kind of what you’re hinting at, i think because all the curves are similar and all the colors, while born out of the same palette, are equally bright and punchy, it all blends together for me when I’m looking at it.

Though, I’m sure if this became the standard, within 2 months I’d feel different.

AlexB April 11, 2014 - 1:44 pm

The map is a nice integration of regional and subway lines, as well as light rail in NJ. I also like how it groups express lines as single lines and locals as single lines, instead of grouping everything as one line (as in the MTA map) or separating each route (as in the kick map). In that sense, it’s more clear regarding what route stops where. The geographic inaccuracies are a problem if you need geography to use the system (as most new yorkers do) but not if you are just trying to understand which routes serve which stops (which it does excellently).

My preference is still for the Kick Map, which I think is the best version out there.

Roxie April 11, 2014 - 2:56 pm

Christ, this is horrendous. And what happens when the Second Ave. Subway opens? Or when the 7 train extension opens? Or if the Rockaway Branch subway happens? Or a North Shore rail reactivation? And it completely understates the sheer distance between the various subway lines in Queens and Brooklyn. And completely wrecks Brooklyn in general…

And honestly, it’s just ugly in general, what with it arbitrarily changing route colors as it pleases. The font seems bad readability-wise too. I feel like I’d have to squint to see those words on a map (especially in a more dimly-lit subway car like an R44), compared with Standard Medium or Helvetica.

Vin April 11, 2014 - 4:20 pm

The problem with this map is that it’s a pure, 100% schematic, but it retains a few geographical features. If it had zero geographical features – if it got rid of the waterways and Central Park – I could see it having some usefulness.

But if you’re going to a couple of bits of geography, you can’t make it look like Bay Ridge is east of Sunset Park, or Jamaica north of Flushing. You just can’t take the level of distortion that far while still including bits of geography. It would seriously confuse people.

Ned April 12, 2014 - 10:59 am

If you’ve ever sat and compared the current MTA map with a geographic one, the liberties taken are significant and on top of that it’s a graphic mess. I like this one — to me it’s more clear and honest than the MTA as a diagram. And the MTA should have color differentiated btw local and express a long time ago. I live in Brooklyn and am in no way offended by the distortion. I don’t think anyone would be tempted to use this for street navigation since it’s so clearly stylized; that’s exactly the problem with the MTA version. That said, I think there could be some improvements in the layout of the north and south shores of Queens, specifically around the airports and their connections.

sonicboy678 April 12, 2014 - 12:06 pm

Of course there are geographic liberties taken with the current map; however, it’s still more geographically accurate than this mess.

By using the current color-coding, everything has some sense of uniformity; the same can’t be said for keeping local and express separate. In fact, that would make it far worse once you begin to factor in night service patterns.

I live in Brooklyn, as well; I can hardly make heads or tails of this. Many of the things done screw up the legibility and legitimacy of the map (A and 1 in northern Manhattan, the north-south Brooklyn routes, especially the 2 and 5 in relation to Far Rockaway, of all places, and many other things I don’t even have to begin to mention).

I seriously doubt people would like how this map is laid out in relation to NYC’s actual layout. The current map and the Vignelli map are light years better than this.

BruceNY April 12, 2014 - 1:58 pm

Overall the horrible distortion of this map makes it a big Fail as far as I’m concerned. But having said that, I do think the existing MTA map could make a few changes which Cerovic, Vignelli, and Kickmaps attempt to address:
–Separate lines for local and expresses. I don’t think we need each individual route to have its own line (Vignelli & Kickmap)which makes those maps too crowded, but two lines makes it so much easier to distinguish the difference between local & express service (which tourists are easily confused by).

–Other rail services: I hate the skinny lines with the cross-hatches, and they appear too similar to the dotted lines for bus routes, and the dashed border between Brooklyn & Queens. Give the railroads and PATH clearer, bolder lines (but not the same as the subway lines).
–One thing I do miss from the Vignelli era; a bit more variety in colors of different lines (Fuschia, Sky blue

LolaTheBola April 13, 2014 - 4:01 am

Called me stoned, but this subway map just looks weird. The information is all there, but there is something off about the color scheme and the station transfer dots. It’s kinda like these element don’t mix. The E, C, 6, and L lines are kinda bright on the eyes. And the 45/90° turns bug me out, as if that’s how the city is set up.

But the real tragedy of this map is it truly makes you aware that Manhattan kinda look like a penis and Queens is the ballsac of the city.

sonicboy678 April 13, 2014 - 10:54 pm

By “L”, I assume you mean “LIRR” as opposed to the subway route.

Brooklyn Cowbell Guy April 14, 2014 - 9:14 am

KickMap is the best. Shows neighborhoods, each line is it’s own variant of the color, great app.

Eric B April 14, 2014 - 10:56 am

Looks like one of those fantasy maps fans produce, with all sorts of new lines added everywhere. Everything’s just jumbled together, close.

Nyland8 April 19, 2014 - 9:20 am

An 8 year old turned loose with a set of fluorescent pastels.

Seriously though, rather than insist on having one map describe our system, shouldn’t there ALWAYS be a stylized graphic depiction AND a geographically accurate inset to supplement it? That solves all the problems. The strangers in town won’t be duped into thinking it’s a short stroll from one Line to another, and the more frequent users can easily grasp the relationships between the various lines for easy navigation.

Wasn’t the Vignelli map originally 2 maps? Or a map and some sort of supplemental legend? I can’t help but feel that if we’re resigned to not putting the system on a true geographical map, then more than one map should be used to bring the system into clearer focus.

What’s wrong with using 2 maps, or a map with a large well-scaled inset?

Miles Bader May 5, 2014 - 5:28 am

His other maps seem similarly screwed up…. He seems to be focused pretty narrowly on making maps he personally finds pretty, often at the expense of usability and accuracy.

Oh well.


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