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The Science of a Great Subway Map
October 30, 2013 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Researchers at an MIT lab have devised a way to determine how well straphangers can comprehend a subway map in a single glance. Massimo Vignelli really DID know what he was doing.
posted by Chrysostom (91 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oooh, my wife is gonna dig this. Much thanks!
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:39 AM on October 30, 2013


Maybe it's because I'm a Brit, but I'd not come across 'straphanger' before. It's literally strap-hanger, i.e. a person standing on public transport, holding onto a hanging strap for stability, during times when there's not enough seats for everyone.

As opposed to a stranger to the subway with strep throat, which was my first thought.
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:46 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a silver line now? I guess it's been a long time since I lived on the red line.
posted by pracowity at 6:48 AM on October 30, 2013


I thought straphanger was a feature of the map. The transit I take does not have straps.
posted by birdherder at 6:50 AM on October 30, 2013


Massimo Vignelli really DID know what he was doing.

This was ever a question? People actually think he was just slapping pretty lines down or something? Geez.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:51 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Some of the cars on the Orange Line have straps hanging from the bars. I think they're just for shorter people though because if you hang on them you're gonna swing all over the place when the car stops. Most of us just grab onto the bars.

I have never heard the phrase "straphanger" before. I suspect it was invented for this article.
posted by bondcliff at 7:00 AM on October 30, 2013


There's a silver line now? I guess it's been a long time since I lived on the red line.

Well, sort of. There was a great need for rapid transit in poorer neighborhoods like Roxbury, but they didn't want spend money on those poor people and actually dig tunnels, so they came up with this hybrid/dedicated bus lane thing.

Ok, in fairness, it's actually really cool, infinitely easier now to get to the airport.
posted by Melismata at 7:04 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


This 54-year-old Brit first heard the term "straphanger", meaning "standing traveller on a bus or train", as a child in northern England. It's an old term.
posted by Decani at 7:05 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't know. Here is the word straphanger as the title of a nice April 2012 book on the virtues of mass transit. Older subway trains in New York definitely had straps for standing passengers to hold onto. And, on edit, what Decani said.
posted by smrtsch at 7:05 AM on October 30, 2013


"straphanger" has certainly not been unfamiliar to New York City for some time.

The OED's first citation is from 1905 (with early usage apparently in reference to London transport).
posted by yz at 7:08 AM on October 30, 2013


I have never heard the phrase "straphanger" before. I suspect it was invented for this article.

Google ngrams: straphanger. There are links there for searching in Google books if you'd like to see the word in context.
posted by stebulus at 7:10 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Check out the references for "strap-hanger" here. It goes back to the nineteenth century.
posted by Decani at 7:11 AM on October 30, 2013


But did this article ever actually answer the question of why a subway map needs to be fully comprehensible in a single glance? Does anybody actually glance at a subway map? I'd think that people mostly experience subway maps in a very linear way -- they look for their current location, they look for their destination, they go back to their current location and follow the colored line with their eye until they get to their destination. If we're making sacrifices here, I'd much rather have a subway map give me some idea of where I'm going to be when I get out of the train.
posted by ostro at 7:11 AM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


But did this article ever actually answer the question of why a subway map needs to be fully comprehensible in a single glance? Does anybody actually glance at a subway map?

One of the answers to your question is: in the field of information design, information needs to appear legible if people are going to put in the effort to find what they need. Designers seek cognitive ease: you can't expect that your audience is going to work harder than they ought to, and you ought not design something more complicated or messy than you can.
posted by entropone at 7:19 AM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


This image at the bottom of the article explains a lot. As ostro hinted, it isn't surprising that a clean, white background with colorful lines has a simpler structure at a glance. The "mongrel" for this map is still useful.

But look at all the other information that the current MTA map gives riders who manage to look at the map for a little longer. A sense of the geography of the island. The notion that they could get out at subway stop 1, walk a little bit, and get to subway stop 2. You can't learn that at a glance, sure, but in Manhattan its one of the things that makes the subway system great. It interacts with above ground networks as well.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:19 AM on October 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


But did this article ever actually answer the question of why a subway map needs to be fully comprehensible in a single glance?

I think the point they're trying to make is that you need the information that's being collected by your peripheral vision in order to make sense of the map as a whole. Trying to figure out your route from starting to ending station, you need to know where to focus your eyes next to find connections, station names, and other information. That's why the squiggly-lined map of the New York MTA system is difficult to gather at a glance - and no one wants to have to stare at a map for a long time to try to get useful information out of it.

I think the presumption here is that you already know vaguely where you're going to end up when you get on the train, so it's less important to be completely geographically accurate than to make it easy to read. Once you arrive at your destination, then having an actual street map at the station is more useful to get you around the surface roads.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:20 AM on October 30, 2013


you ought not design something more complicated or messy than you can.

Trying to figure out your route from starting to ending station, you need to know where to focus your eyes next to find connections, station names, and other information.

For route planning purposes, this seems exactly right. The clean design is superior. However, I think the subway map, plastered everywhere in the city, has other uses too. Expecting people to consult a different map when they get to their destination seems like a cluttered solution as well.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:23 AM on October 30, 2013


New Yorkers use the subway maps to do more than move from station-to-station. We use them to get around a city with 600 stations and we only exactly know where a dozen or so are. So even though Vignell's map makes it easier for me to plan the subway part of my trip, it might make it harder to plan my entire trip. The fact that New Yorkers demanded a version of their old map back suggests to me that sadly it did, on average, make using the map as people actually use it harder.
posted by shothotbot at 7:30 AM on October 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Man those mongrel maps are a really good representation of what you see when you wake up half-drunk in Coney Island at 3 AM and need to figure out how to get home.
posted by griphus at 7:32 AM on October 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


The trend to make maps a "better representation at first glance" seems to assume "better representation at first glance means better in the long run" - that is, it assumes once you are familiar with the area, it still holds that "better representation at first glance is better." This could be true if we are forever encountering new maps and never getting comfortable with one area, or that the speed with which you comprehend a geographic area usually trumps the benefits you get from detail. Maybe that's true, I don't know.

It seems like reality is just becoming a model of itself! Map details are just for researchers?
posted by 3FLryan at 7:35 AM on October 30, 2013


Expecting people to consult a different map when they get to their destination seems like a cluttered solution as well.

That's not the purpose of a subway map. Subway maps are supposed to help you get from station to station.

One thing missing is that in addition to the map, an experienced traveler knows to ALWAYS look at the sign on the train arriving at the station. I can get confused when trains stop short and don't go to the end of the line and I am forced to quickly look for a subway map to make sure that the station shown on the train is on the same line and further than the station I want to go to.

A simple solution would be to boldface these intermediate end-stations so I notice them when consulting the map the first time.
posted by three blind mice at 7:42 AM on October 30, 2013


By the way, the NYT link on Vignelli's rejected 1972 map is really very interesting.

Especially the very different reactions between Londoners who were pleased Harry Beck's 1931 diagrammatic tube map simplified a very difficult-to-navigate city, and New Yorkers who were displeased Vignelli's map simplified an already easy-to-navigate city.
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 7:44 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Straphangers on BART here in the Bay Area.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:47 AM on October 30, 2013


That's not the purpose of a subway map. Subway maps are supposed to help you get from station to station.

Again, in NYC (not sure about elsewhere) the subway is so woven in to daily activities, and the subway maps themselves are so ubiquitous, that their use is broader than just station-to-station directions.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:48 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I visit New York, I navigate station-to-station, and I don't really give a damn what I'm passing underneath. To that end, Vignelli's map is a godsend and the standard map is unreadable. The only points above ground that matter to me are the station exits.

If I lived in New York, I would eventually want to get the context of where I am and what was on the way, and start doing what all city-dwellers do, which is optimize routes and timing based on my knowledge of the geography. That's how I navigated when I lived in Boston.
posted by ardgedee at 7:50 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like to pronounce it stra-FANG-er.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:51 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


In most other cities with a subway, there are a relatively small number of stations, and most people have some idea of where they are located.

New York has over 400 stations, hence the need to put the stations in a larger context.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:52 AM on October 30, 2013


Both maps are useful and necessary. Vignelli's was vetoed by the locals because it does not work for the experts. Thus leaving the nonexperts with a much more challenging task than they really need.

Both maps are necessary. Each is only better for a certain set of users.
posted by ardgedee at 7:53 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "Subway maps are supposed to help you get from station to station."

Subway maps are "supposed" to do what people most want to use them to do.

And speaking from my own experience, a map largely divorced from geographical referents is a pain in the ass. Longer trips because I'm going further around a bend when another route would have been a straight shot. No clear way of knowing what stations are near each other on the surface, which is crucial if you're doing anything remotely complex.

If all you want to do is get from one station to another, then the only crucial information you need is - which direction do I go to get to my next stop? And guess what, well-designed subway stations already have ENTIRELY SEPARATE SIGNS showing the direction, stops, and transfers on only the one individual line you're at if that's what you want. Clear, easy, super-simple "mongrel". The bigger maps are for longer, more complicated journeys, and if they require a bit more study if they are to include all the information they need, so be it.

Clarity is greatly important for map design. Including crucial information, however? Also greatly important.
posted by kyrademon at 7:57 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's not the purpose of a subway map. Subway maps are supposed to help you get from station to station.

When I'm in New York, I always pick up a free folding subway map. It's ugly as hell and a little harder to read, but it's invaluable for getting around the city, above and below ground.

Vignelli's map is beautiful and it certainly makes the topography of the transit system easier to understand but, as shothotbot said, it's near useless when you're in the middle of the East Village and need to know which way to walk to get to a subway station.

In a city with so many stations and lines, I would put forth that helping navigate above ground to the station you want is in fact part of a subway map's job.
posted by 256 at 7:58 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


9am on a New York subway, strap-a-hangin', commutin' on the double A
posted by calico at 7:58 AM on October 30, 2013


Subway straps: a wretched hive of scum and bodily fluids. ATTEMPT NO CONTACT THERE.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:59 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Subway maps aren't needed at all anymore, or won't be as soon as you can ask your phone how to get to a certain place and then follow its audible instructions. Phones can't do that yet?
posted by pracowity at 8:00 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Subway maps aren't needed at all anymore, or won't be as soon as you can ask your phone how to get to a certain place and then follow its audible instructions.

Instructions which would cut out as soon as you got into the first subway terminal because the MTA does not have Wi-Fi or phone signals underground as of yet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:03 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the visual simplicity and readability of the Vignelli map. It clearly lays out the information that it is meant to convey, is gorgeous, and is iconic.

That being said, I don't think it makes a better subway map for one reason: it is MTA-centric, not city-centric. If I want to find out how to get to a location in the city rather than the location of a stop relative to other stops the Vignelli map requires not only an inherent knowledge of the geography of the city above-ground, but also the ability to recall that geography when matched up with an abstract map. If I'm trying to get to, say, a particular restaurant in the East Village on the 6, I would need to picture the village, picture Houston, and picture my restaurant all in relation to each other simply to know if I should get off at Astor Place or Prince street. With the current map, I just have to look at it for that information visually, no inherent knowledge or recall necessary.

In how people actually operate in their daily lives in the city - not to mention tourists - I think the current map is much a better solution.
posted by gregoryg at 8:04 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Subway straps: a wretched hive of scum and bodily fluids. ATTEMPT NO CONTACT THERE.

Dude, I PINE for the hard, plastic seats of the NYC Subway of my youth.

BART has for years had these seats sporting shit, urine, blood, & sweat absorbing sponges with woven covers. Smack one of those bizzles, and this powder from the dissolving decades-old foam would get puffed into the air, along with the previously mentioned bodily fluids now airborne.

They're replacing them with impervious covers than can be hosed down from their daily... hosing. But the urine-sponges still roll in a lot of cars.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:08 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


the MTA does not have Wi-Fi or phone signals underground as of yet.

I bet that's prevented a great number of FOR FUCK'S SAKE SHUT UP ALREADY! murders.
posted by pracowity at 8:10 AM on October 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


But did this article ever actually answer the question of why a subway map needs to be fully comprehensible in a single glance?

You, sir and/or madam, have never spent a good five minutes in the NYC subway tilting your head awkwardly and leaning on the hobo next to you to allow some poor, squinting tourist easier access to the exquisitely detailed mess of the MTA map located directly at the level of your face should you have been lucky enough to find a seat.
posted by Mooseli at 8:14 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Again, in NYC (not sure about elsewhere) the subway is so woven in to daily activities, and the subway maps themselves are so ubiquitous, that their use is broader than just station-to-station directions.

Ain't nothing special about NYC or it's subway (which is pathetic compared to most European cities.)

Every subway in every city is woven in to daily life so much so that locals usually don't need to consult subway maps which are for tourists and out-of-towners who don't know the city as well as the locals.
posted by three blind mice at 8:33 AM on October 30, 2013


I lived in London for a few months and while the tube map is beautiful, its geographical imprecision was annoying - to find the most efficient route I would need to consult both the tube map and my London A to Z street finder side by side.

But for tourists or other casual transit users, I see the utility of a simple map like the tube map in London or the Vignelli map for New York. You don't need to know precisely the most efficient route, you just need to know generally what line to get on.
posted by slmorri at 8:33 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the radial NYC subway map. I'm not sure that it's simpler or easier to understand, but it certainly is beautiful.
posted by Phredward at 8:35 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Making quilt renditions of the Tokyo subway system map is a thing.
posted by carmicha at 8:37 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was skeptical about these mongrel images at first, but reading about the research behind them I'm impressed. What's weird is they're trying to show an image of what stuff in your peripheral vision looks like. But the moment you look at the mongrel itself you focus on all the broken parts in the periphery, a completely unnatural effect that's not really relevant to the goal of the research.

Here's a decently high-res scan of the complete Vignelli map.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on October 30, 2013


Ain't nothing special about NYC or it's subway (which is pathetic compared to most European cities.)

...so much so that locals usually don't need to consult subway maps which are for tourists and out-of-towners who don't know the city as well as the locals.

haha, that's exactly what is special about the NYC subway. As people have said here, there are so many stations, and so many corners of the city accessible by public transportation, that we locals use these maps all the time.

And, no, our subway is not pathetic.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:39 AM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I bet that's prevented a great number of FOR FUCK'S SAKE SHUT UP ALREADY! murders.

"Your honor, the defendant was caught vandalizing MTA property. The people suggest a $2,500 fine and thirty days."
"What was the property, exactly?"
"One of the newly-installed cellular signal repeaters. He was going at it with a crowbar."
"Did he completely disable it or just do cosmetic damage?"
"It's completely disabled. There's no underground reception from 14th to 42nd."
"Not guilty."
posted by griphus at 8:40 AM on October 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Making quilt renditions of the Tokyo subway system map is a thing.

Speaking of the Tokyo one, someone made a gorgeous model of the Tokyo subway in 3d . Anyone know if there's any equivalent for the MTA?
posted by gregoryg at 8:42 AM on October 30, 2013


three blind mice: "Ain't nothing special about NYC or it's subway (which is pathetic compared to most European cities.) "

This seems a bit overstated. The NYC subway is the largest in the world, by number of stations.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:44 AM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


The first metro system, the London Underground, was opened in 1863. The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is the longest system in passenger route length. The New York City Subway has the most stations and the longest amount of total track, with a total of 842 miles (1,355 km), including non-revenue trackage.

I find "pathetic" hard to reconcile with "one of the two contenders for most extensive in the world."
posted by 256 at 8:44 AM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


> "Speaking of the Tokyo one, someone made a gorgeous model of the Tokyo subway in 3d."

Whoa, what's the roller-coaster dive over on the far right there?
posted by kyrademon at 8:44 AM on October 30, 2013


Although I will definitely admit that the cleanliness and usability of the NYC Subway leaves a lot to be desired compared to the most other metro systems. But then, it's harder to keep a big house clean.
posted by 256 at 8:46 AM on October 30, 2013


This seems a bit overstated. The NYC subway is the largest in the world, by number of stations.

Not to mention 24/7, which means that maintenance must happen simultaneously with active service.
posted by gregoryg at 8:46 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


I understand the problem with the un-hypened 'straphanger'... I tend to avoid phangers of all sorts myself.

And there is one simple principle (you could almost call it 'one weird trick' on the web) for making a good subway map... know the way the city is laid out - and why.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:47 AM on October 30, 2013


Not to mention 24/7, which means that maintenance must happen simultaneously with active service.

...which would explain the regular absence of both.
posted by griphus at 8:54 AM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


New Yorkers use the subway maps to do more than move from station-to-station. We use them to get around a city with 600 stations and we only exactly know where a dozen or so are. So even though Vignell's map makes it easier for me to plan the subway part of my trip, it might make it harder to plan my entire trip. The fact that New Yorkers demanded a version of their old map back suggests to me that sadly it did, on average, make using the map as people actually use it harder.

Doesn't anybody else use the Kick map? Best of both worlds.
posted by evil otto at 8:56 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find "pathetic" hard to reconcile with "one of the two contenders for most extensive in the world."

There is no point in wasting your time feeding this particular troll, I assure you.
posted by elizardbits at 9:03 AM on October 30, 2013 [13 favorites]


First, as kyrademon's comment illustrates, their research will produce a map that is good for tourists, but not the most useful one for locals.

Second, the MBTA is solving an easy, minor problem here, and ignore the big difficult one. I'm talking about a Bus Route map. The Boston subway is not the NYC subway — there are only four lines, and there's usually only one practical way to get from point A to point B. But there are probably 50-70 bus lines, and I have yet to see a good map for them. It's also pretty to even find any bus map. Harvard Square T stop, a major hub for bus lines, doesn't even have a single bus map posted.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:11 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


When I first travelled on the London Underground there were leather straps from which people hung, and 'straphanger' was widely used. Then there was an era where they had those springy things with a ball on the end. I assumed the straps had been deemed dangerous because if you put your hand through the loop and then got thrown off your feet your hand would be caught and you might dislocate something.

Now I don't think there's anything; you just have to grab one of those rails that have a slight sheen from some kind of film of slime. One assumes it is a compound of many people's sweat, sebum, saliva, phlegm, semen, mucopurulent exudate, and stuff like that.
posted by Segundus at 9:26 AM on October 30, 2013


Subway maps are supposed to help you get from station to station.

That assumes you know what station you want to get to. Which is often not the case, and I think if you assume that everyone already knows what station they want to get to, you're begging the navigational question in very large part.

This is a problem with highly-stylized, nongeographic maps like the London Underground's or DC Metro's. It's very good at telling you how to get from one station to another station within the system, but not particularly awesome at telling you where particular stations are within the city / metro area.

Recent versions of the DC Metro map have included more landmarks outside the system, which at least makes it a little less hostile to outsiders and tourists. IIRC some early versions of the map showed nothing but the system itself, in a fairly abstract way, plus the Potomac River and the borders of the District.*

When designing a map, I think the only safe assumption to make is that users of the map probably know where they want to go, in terms of an actual, real-world location. E.g. "Buckingham Palace" or "the Pentagon City mall" or "the Spy Museum" but that's about it. And then it's the job of the map to nudge the user towards a navigation solution: what station is closest to the real-world destination, and how do they navigate through the system to get there. Non-geographic maps only solve the second part which is a pretty user-hostile attitude.

New York City's Subway maps seem to at least try to solve both of these questions and it's always a bit annoying when various "designers" try to redo the map, throwing away all the geographical stuff in favor of various high-concept ideals without realizing that they're making the map basically half as useful, since it no longer meets one of two major use cases for a transit map.

* Showing the District borders has always struck me as an interesting addition, since I don't think it's especially useful for navigation — it's not like most people give directions with respect to an invisible political boundary — and I've always had the impression it says more about the politics of the WMATA than anything else.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:27 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure the simpler map is even the best for tourists. If you want to know if you can take a subway to the East Village, head north for a few hours looking around at stuff, and then find another station to hop onto to head back to your hotel before you die of exhaustion, then a map with geographical reference points is your dear dear friend.

What I'm saying is, there are two different purposes, which both tourists and locals might have - one is simply taking a line from one known spot to another known spot, maybe making a transfer. For those, you want the simplest possible map, the single-line versions - which, in fact, also exist. The other is making a complex journey involving both overland and underground legs - which is another thing that both tourists and locals do. And for that, you need a map which contains as much information as can be jammed into it while maintaining basic good design standards and clarity.

In the simpler subway systems, like frankly those present in most in the world, this question shouldn't even come up, because with three or four or six lines, it's not even all that hard to have superimpose the subway over a simplified city map while maintaining clarity. It's only an issue in the megacities with the megasubways, where clarity and information density can potentially be at odds. But crippling the utility of a map as a general navigational tool strikes me as a ... poor solution to this particular dilemma.
posted by kyrademon at 9:33 AM on October 30, 2013


(And incidentally, it's interesting how the article waves aside the "public pressure" to get rid of of Vignelli's map as if New York City was somehow simply overrun with shocked bourgeoisie who were artistically outraged by its daring minimalism, rather than the actual truth which is that everyone pretty much thought it was a kind of a crappy useless map.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:45 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


A someone whose use of subways is almost always as a tourist, I want a map that superimposes the subway details on top of a to-scale map of the real world with real-world details. For me, this is the easiest way to find the closest place to get on, where to make connections, and then the closest place to get off. Reality for urban orienteering.

Love the graphic design of Vignelli, but its usefulness as a poster on the wall far exceeds its usefulness for planning and real-time navigation.
posted by achrise at 9:51 AM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Segundus, the new Circle line trains have straps and they're total balls. You get covered in fountains of cerebrospinal fluid n' cerumen regardless, but at least the bars provide stability. Doesn't matter how much semen and spittle and breastmilk you grease the straps with - at 7am my wrists should not have to perform in the Cirque du Soleil.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:52 AM on October 30, 2013


Harvard Square T stop, a major hub for bus lines, doesn't even have a single bus map posted.

They used to have kiosks with little mini-pamphlets of bus maps and schedules. They were almost always empty, but if you managed to get to one you could pick one up. Do they not have those anymore? I haven't regularly ridden the T since the 90s.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2013


I find "pathetic" hard to reconcile with "one of the two contenders for most extensive in the world."

A metro system isn't just a monument, so bigness doesn't tell the entire story. It has functionality. To add another point of data, the NYC Subway System is #7 in annual ridership, with the #8 through #10 having a difference of less than 10% compared to NYC's annual ridership. Most of the top ranks are in Asia, and are probably going to continue to grow quickly in the foreseeable future.
posted by FJT at 9:56 AM on October 30, 2013


I had a fantastic poster-sized Boston bus map while I lived there, but for some reason they stopped making them. I hoarded it jealously.

There are, of course, a couple of other reasons to use a map in a subway. For example, orienting yourself to find an aboveground location after getting out, which is why stations often have local maps as well. And yes, there is the simple question, what is the fastest way to get from station A to station B on a different line with minimal transfers? And Vignelli's map might answer that well ... but it's the ONLY question it answers well, whereas a more complex map answers both that and other questions with slightly more time investment. I can definitely see an argument for a simplified map existing, in order to answer that question (which does come up a lot), but it's only useful as a supplement to more information-dense maps; as the only map, it does a lousy job because there's too many questions it doesn't answer.
posted by kyrademon at 9:59 AM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Aren't there enough flashers in the subway without people having a dick-measuring contest here about subway size?
posted by pracowity at 10:05 AM on October 30, 2013


(Googles "subway systems ranked by number of flashing incidents")
posted by FJT at 10:35 AM on October 30, 2013


Who are these people who are using the NYC Subway map to navigate aboveground? The collection of landmarks included are arbitrary, inconsistent, and the map isn't even remotely to scale.

Landmarks and contextual hints are great, and diagrammatic maps should include them (case in point: The DC Metro map). However, the current NYC map is bad, because it's deceptive. You can fault diagrammatic maps for excluding important pieces of information, but the NYC map also implies many wrong pieces of information, which I consider to be much much worse.

That being said, the MTA has greatly improved the NYC map over the past few years by including more useful aboveground landmarks than they had done previously. The circa-2005 map was a damn mess, and the current design is a lot cleaner.
posted by schmod at 10:38 AM on October 30, 2013


Who are these people who are using the NYC Subway map to navigate aboveground?

Not navigating above ground--that is a funny image. Rather, planning trips and routes based on the aboveground places we need to be: "Okay, what subway stop should we get off at if we want to go to the middle of central park for a nice walk? Looks like we should take the C to 81st street. And then we want to see the Met and end up at Grand Central so I guess we should meet at the 86th st 4/5/6 station."
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:57 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Vignelli map is indeed beautiful (except for some unfortunate and borderline unreadable color choices, which frankly make it fail even the "at-a-glance" test) but it isn't useful for communting in New York. Which is why New Yorkers got rid of it. The current map isn't beautiful, and isn't perfect, but works for the way the city operates.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2013


For more on the MBTA subway map, check this blog that I follow.

In there, he links to this, which lets you switch between a geographical and grid-based representation.


I haven't worked on transit maps, but I have worked on other maps, and I can appreciate that if you've got 30 stops from 4 different lines squished into a downtown area that is geographically smaller than the space between two stops on some of the radial lines, why the map-maker may be motivated to avoid that.


The article links to it, but I also found the explanation of exactly what the "mongrels" are interesting.
posted by RobotHero at 11:41 AM on October 30, 2013


> New York City's Subway maps seem to at least try to solve both of these questions and it's always a bit annoying when various "designers" try to redo the map, throwing away all the geographical stuff in favor of various high-concept ideals without realizing that they're making the map basically half as useful, since it no longer meets one of two major use cases for a transit map.

Though I agree with parts of this, it's worth stating (as others in this thread have hinted at) a crucial distinction of the New York subway, at least in most of Manhattan. The fact that the streets and avenues are numbered, and that many stations are named after either the street or the avenue, means that it's quite easy to navigate to particular destinations even with an abstract representation of the system. If I know that Tiffany & Co. is at 5th Avenue and 57th St., then I just need to know which line runs closest to 5th Avenue, and then I see that there's a 57 St. stop.

Of course, the fact that this is only true for part of one of the four boroughs that the subway touches is, I admit, too great a caveat. But it says a lot for how wildly successful Manhattan's grid system was, and how easy it is to navigate even for the millions of oafish tourists like myself who are just there to point and gawp and get in people's way.

As for which approach is better for the NYC subway map: I say flip a coin. The constraints are (a) easy to read, (b) geographically accurate, (c) detailed enough not to oversimplify or mislead; and I'd argue that no design would get you more than two out of those three, at least in New York. The major problem is that the map must reflect what the subway system actually does and what it does is hopelessly complex. If the city were to wipe the slate clean and build all new lines, no longer beholden to the decisions made by three different rail companies a whole century ago, then they'd be able to make a map that was actually easy to read.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:43 AM on October 30, 2013


(But I don't mean to imply that they should do so, of course.)
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:44 AM on October 30, 2013


Point [your mouse] here if you want another reason to feel good about the NYC subway system.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 12:23 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Harvard Square T stop, a major hub for bus lines, doesn't even have a single bus map posted.

They used to have kiosks with little mini-pamphlets of bus maps and schedules. They were almost always empty, but if you managed to get to one you could pick one up. Do they not have those anymore? I haven't regularly ridden the T since the 90s.


Those kiosks run out of the more popular routes almost instantly. There are schedules posted in the busways behind glass, but not maps, as I have discovered more than once when I needed a damn map.
posted by maryr at 12:35 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


They used to have kiosks with little mini-pamphlets of bus maps and schedules.

You mean the ones for when you already know which route you want? I'm talking about when you pop out of the red line and know there's some bus that goes up Mass Ave to the Capitol Theater but which one is it? I've been reduced to walking from stop to stop and looking at each posted route map to see if it's the one I want.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:21 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was going to defend the Boston bus map, but there does not appear to be one. I've been poking around their site for a few minutes and I cannot find an overall map there. That's my original system, but looking back I almost never took the bus. I think this might be part of it. WTF MBTA?

(On the other hand, you can try to plan your route via their online tool, but there is no overall map.)
posted by Hactar at 1:36 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Without wising to get into some NY vs London TUBE MAP FIGHT there's one major difference in the geographical accuracy/readability problem. (At least as far as most of Manhattan and parts of other boroughs are concerned.)

With a city which is laid out on a grid system where the streets are often numbered*, you can pretty accurately make a prediction in many given situations: "I'm on the corner of 98th St and Central Park West; which is closer, the 96th St stop or 103rd St?"

Whereas in London - and plenty of other places - it becomes a little more abstract: "I'm on the corner of Dean St and Oxford St; am I closer to Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus?" Well, who the fuck knows, if your only source of info is the Tube map.



*and I know that not even all of Manhattan conforms to this, let alone the other four boroughs
posted by Len at 1:45 PM on October 30, 2013


Hactar: I was going to defend the Boston bus map, but there does not appear to be one.

It's here: http://www.mbta.com/schedules_and_maps/system_map/ under the first element of the navigation bar at the top of the page (Schedules & Maps - System Map). I agree that it should probably also be linked under the large "Schedules & Maps" section on the right side of the landing page, but it's definitely there.
posted by fader at 1:52 PM on October 30, 2013


It's such a good map that it is broken into 9 panes, one of which is mostly ocean.
posted by maryr at 2:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am really upset that panel 6 does not feature frolicking krakens.
posted by elizardbits at 2:07 PM on October 30, 2013


Subway nerd and Londoner here, and so I believe that a subway map is a subway map and a street map is a street map and never the twain should meet. Took me a little while to figure out how to read the NYC map the first time I had to navigate it. I still think it's a mess and that the Vignelli one is both beautiful and useful.

The major difference in approach is that every single tourist attraction in London has the nearest tube station marked on all its literature. I visited the MTA museum in Brooklyn (told you I was a subway nerd) and was initially foxed by the lack of indication as to the nearest subway stop. I had to go to a map and look it up and figure out the nearest stop. Would have been much easier for me, as a tourist, for the website to just tell me what stop to get off at. But that's the opposite of what others in this thread have said.

Whereas in London - and plenty of other places - it becomes a little more abstract: "I'm on the corner of Dean St and Oxford St; am I closer to Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus?" Well, who the fuck knows, if your only source of info is the Tube map.

Well, sure. But what line do you want? The 96th and 103rd stops are on all the same lines, so it doesn't matter. TCR and Oxford St only share the Central; if you want the Northern, Bakerloo or Victoria that'll influence your decision more than the distance.
posted by corvine at 2:14 PM on October 30, 2013


Some of us, myself definitely included, got way too pissy about this the last time we had the exact same argument.
posted by nicwolff at 2:45 PM on October 30, 2013


fader, that's the PDF I've gotten stored on my computer. I can never re-locate it on the site. Now my only question is why there isn't one of these posted at Harvard Square? And Park Street Station? And Kenmore Square?
posted by benito.strauss at 2:54 PM on October 30, 2013


This is the only map for NYC I need to get around.
posted by yeti at 3:07 PM on October 30, 2013


Google maps has now included routes of subway lines.
posted by brujita at 4:19 PM on October 30, 2013


Have to recommend Transit Maps of the World.
posted by mlis at 5:04 PM on October 30, 2013


SEPTA has tons of maps. One for each bus line.

That's good, right?
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:18 PM on October 30, 2013


"Speaking of the Tokyo one, someone made a gorgeous model of the Tokyo subway in 3d."

Whoa, what's the roller-coaster dive over on the far right there?


Judging by the colors, it appears to be the Hanzomon line as it crosses the Nanboku line heading outside the center city, starting around 住吉/Sumiyoshi. The wiki article mentions a number of troubles with construction but nothing about depth. There's a kind of explanation here in Japanese, but it's just to the effect that newer lines need to be deeper to avoid existing ones, and are also built that way for safety in earthquakes. Sumiyoshi Station is the deepest by sea level (-33m), but Roppongi has the greatest distance to the surface (42.5m).

On a different note, if you like subway maps and artificial intelligence you may enjoy this bit on Automatic Generation of Transit Maps and a related paper, "Automatic Layout of Metro Maps Using Multicriteria Optimisation".
posted by 23 at 7:30 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have yet to see a good bus map, from any city. As far as I can tell, it's impossible. And it was impossible for a visitor to use the bus system of any city before the advent of transit directions in Google Maps.
posted by Triplanetary at 7:46 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting, reading the argument here that everyone who criticizes the MTA map (as far as I can tell) is from outside of NYC. Everyone defending it is from NYC. Based on this heavily biased and horribly non-representative sample, I will claim that the MTA map is what New Yorkers want and need and the rest of you can just deal. The DC map, however, does not scale well, so putting it on a system like New York's would not work for either commuters or tourists. The same goes for Boston. As for London, it runs into some of the same problems, but not as much. I remember when I was there in 2000 the most valuable pages in the travel book I had showed the location of tub lines under the city. I would have loved a to scale map of the underground with an insert for the central area to clarify what was going on. It's not so necessary with something like DC or Boston, but for London or Paris a secondary to scale map would be useful.

After looking at a bunch of these to scale, I think I see what makes the NYC subway different than the others: There is not a single center of the map where all the trains run to that has a high density of stops per area with branches going out to have lower density stops further out. Even going out to say, Coney Island on the Q or F trains, there are many (many many, dear god it takes over an hour and a half to get there and I live in the same borough) stops even far out in Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn does have downtown, it isn't all hipsters and people being forced out due to gentrification here) is almost as well served by the subway as midtown Manhattan. There aren't the long tendrils reaching out into the suburbs. That's what MetroNorth and the NJT (and Path) are for instead.
posted by Hactar at 8:17 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


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