Sunday, February 21, 2010

Subway Map I

Subway Map I: Simplicity

Railway Map, London Transport, 1936, by H C Beck. A few revisions down from his groundbreaking 1933 design.

Back in 1995, before today's middle school kids were born, I drew a New York subway diagram based on the model of the London Underground diagram originally conceived by H C Beck. It's topologically correct but geographically distorted.

I restricted lines to vertical, horizontal, and 45 degree diagonal, as on the London diagram. For reasons I can't explain I found it pleasing to show all stations with the same symbol, circles, instead of using both ticks and circles.

The very great virtue of Beck's diagram is its simplicity. Almost everything is clear as soon as you look at it. The legend only helps with details. That's good design. I wanted to get that into my diagram.

I thought I'd tell you some of what I think about when designing it.

Simple lines for London

First of all, there's something I cannot fix. The simplicity of the London diagram comes in part from the system itself being simpler. The general trend in London is for each Line to operate separately, with easy transfers across the platform to other Lines ; the general trend in New York is toward interline routings involving merges and splits, with relatively inconvenient transfers.

In saying this I exaggerate the differences. So do the maps.

A glance at the classic London diagram (below) shows you only three interline areas: the Circle Line ; the Piccadilly and Metropolitan in the northwest ; and the District and Metropolitan in the east.

But the diagram hides some complexity. The Northern Line has two routes through the city center and three northern terminals, but the diagram makes no attempt to show you the train routings through this mini-system. It does not clarify routings on the District Line either. Additionally, a branch of the District Line and the northern part of the Bakerloo Line share track with national railways, something only hinted at by the diagram's indication of connecting railway services.

I don't object to the hidden information. You don't need to know that level of detail to plan a journey. You can find out at the station whether you will need to change trains.

In the last few decades, the Underground map has become more complex. New construction added the Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway, and conversion of former railway services to rapid transit added the Overground lines. The former Metropolitan Railway, the oldest and largest Line, was split into two colors, but so far the District and Northern hold firm.

The diagram at one time showed part-time services with a different style of line. Even before you check the map legend, it told you there's something a little off about the service, which is the main thing to realize. You could still show up at the station and find out what, when you get there.

Diagram of Lines, London Transport, 1970, by Paul E Garbutt. After a few years of non-Beck maps, Garbutt brought back good design principles in 1964. Both Beck and Garbutt worked for the Underground but developed the diagrams in their spare time, not as a work assignment. The only major changes since 1936 were the Central Line extensions east and west and the Victoria Line.

Tube Map, London Transport, 2001, designer not stated. Basically Garbutt's design with changes to accommodate new routes, most notably the several Docklands Light Railway routes in the southeast, and the North London Railway.

Complicated lines for New York

The abundance of interline services in New York means we are forced to run multiple colors on many sections of line. The best we can do is try a little of the "details don't matter" fudging done on the Northern and District mini-systems, to reduce the instances of it.

Official New York maps up to 1967 took hiding details to an extreme: just three colors. The IRT, BMT, and IND systems had been separately operated up to 1940, and as late as 1967 there was minimal interline routing between the three. Three colors worked well for the diagram.

A new connecting link that opened that year combined the BMT and IND systems to an extent that caused rethinking of the diagram color scheme. I wouldn't say it required rethinking. But retaining the BMT and IND colors based on Manhattan mainline routings would have led to many two-color route segments in Brooklyn. Why this was not acceptable is both psychological and political in nature.

At any rate the diagram adopted in 1967 was the antithesis to tradition, assigning a colored line to every letter and number marker. A large number of route segments now carried two to four colors. The system suddenly looked bewilderingly complex on the diagram.

It's important to realize that the changes involved not only the diagram but station signage and even the names of routes. The old names IRT, BMT, and IND were dropped, and replaced by... nothing really. People are forced to used terms like "the 1, 2, 3 line" and listen to announcements like "the 4 train is running on the 2 line".

I think the new graphic design broke cardinal rules of simplicity and clarity. As I said before, there's a level of detail you don't need to know on the diagram. New York has not yet fully recovered from the mistake.

Some sanity was restored in 1979 with the current style of map. Revision again involved changes in signage as well. Routes were visually simplified by using colors for the Manhattan mainlines. But the logical step of assigning names to the colors was not taken, so we still have the unofficial makeshift "1, 2, 3 line" instead of the "Seventh Avenue Line", and station and directional signs all have to use symbols showing train markers. The map itself was a return to a distorted geographic map rather than a diagram.

Subway Map and Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1967, designed by George Salomon in 1958 and revised by others. Beck's principles adapted to New York: three line colors, route names given in boxes, free transfers highlighted in yellow, and symbols for express and local stations.

Subway Map and Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1967. The first edition of an ugly, cluttered diagram that lasted only five years. Colors for each train marker (but not unique colors). Stations are shown as boxes containing the train marker letters and numbers. Diagonals are mostly at 45 degrees, but the designer gave up on it in a few places. Some part-time services are shown by dashed lines, but not all.

New York Subway Guide, New York City Transit Authority, 1972, by Massimo Vignelli. Bold lines, including a phenomenal black border. There is still some confusion about level of detail: each train marker now has a unique color, but now there's nothing about part-time operation and part-time express running.

The first versions of my diagram did not show the markers at all, and all versions give names in the legend to the colored lines. I added the letter and number markers in 1999, but I still think it looks cleaner without them.

New York Subways and nearby railroad lines by Joseph Brennan, 1997. The first New York diagram showing also the New Jersey rapid transit lines and the inner portions of mainline railroads. The colors are the subway line colors of 1979, plus colors unique to my diagram for PATH and the Newark City Subway.

There's something else they don't have in London that complicates all New York diagrams and maps: express and local trains. But there's a lot to say about how to handle that, so let's wait till next time.

London Tube Maps are reduced from A History of the London Tube Maps by Clive Billson. Go there to see many more examples. The current London diagram is on the web at the Transport for London site (the name of the current operator).

I scanned the two New York 1967 maps from my collection. The scan of the 1972 map was contributed to by Henry Szablicki and Brian Hilley. My 1997 diagram is reduced from the electronic original. The current New York map is on the web at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site.

If you like subway maps, be sure to get the book Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden (Penguin Books, 2007). Go ahead. The online bookstores are open right now. You will be happy.

Continued in Subway Map II.

Next time: Subway Map II.

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