A Riff on a Restoration

paris metro 1956

Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Untergrundbahn…wait…

This is an octolinear version of Cameron Booth’s restoration of a 1956 map of the Paris Metro, inspired partially by…

  • this tweet speculating that part of the reason the Paris Metro official map is so, er, bendy is that the network itself is bendy (which…well…)
  • the fact that when looking at the restored map, I noticed a lot of places where lines that are depicted as bendy and curvy on all the official maps could be straightened very easily. (As Harry Beck would well know, of course.)
  • that one bit of Jug Cerovic’s INAT transit map standard that demands “most lines feature no more than 5 bends on their entire length.

And, happily, I did manage to bring the number of curves on most of the lines down to five or fewer. (Line 9, for example, has five bends on this map, where it has seven on the official Paris Metro map and fourteen(!) on the official Ile-de-France map.) Furthermore, adding the new Line 14 and the connection between the two halves of Line 13 shouldn’t be too difficult, never mind all the extensions out to the banlieue. So why can’t any of the official maps be this simple?

Turns out it’s not the Metro network that’s the problem. It’s the RER network. More specifically, it’s two parts of the RER network.

The first is the RER B/D between Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles. The official maps insist on following the actual path of the actual tracks under all the various Metro lines on that particular stretch, under Lines 8/9 between Grands Boulevards and Bonne Neuvelle, and under Line 3 between Sentier and Reaumur Sebastopol, both of which are pretty far from Line 4, with which it otherwise runs more or less parallel north of the Seine. This means that for the RER lines to be as straight as possible (because what is an express high-capacity rail system if not fast and ramrod-straight), we have to push Line 4 out of the way and give it all these severe distortions where it was previously a very clean north-south axis.

This problem, fortunately, is manageable. No one needs to know that the RER B/D crosses under Lines 8/9 at a particular location, which is why the INAT Paris map always keeps the RER east of Line 4 through central Paris, even when it should be west.* The second problem, however, is much more intractable: the RER A around Auber.

While in Paris City, the RER A generally runs parallel to Metro line 1…except right after it enters Paris from the west, when it curves up to meet the station complex around Gare Saint-Lazare, and then back down to rejoin Line 1 at Chatelet-Les Halles. This is problematic because (a) when a fast line runs parallel to a slow line, the fast line should generally have fewer bends than the slow line, (b) Paris Metro Line 1 is quite possibly the straightest line in the system, making a fantastic east-west axis, and (c) if, instead of bringing the RER A to Saint-Lazare, you bring Saint-Lazare to the RER A, you introduce all manner of distortions that’d render your map unreadable.

The official maps try to solve this problem by integrating Paris’ infamous tilt—that 24-degree tilt that’s not quite level and not quite diagonal and a pain in the rear for anyone trying to resolve the Paris Metro into nice neat straight lines and 45-degree angles—into the design: Line 1 curves down first to meet the Seine, then the RER A follows after it meets Saint-Lazare. But then we lose our east-west axis and we start having trouble orienting ourselves in the map space.**

I don’t have a good solution for this…and this is especially concerning because the Grand Paris Express is comin’ to town—at which point the RER A would become the primary east-west line instead of Metro Line 1—and I have no idea how the Metro map is going to adapt.*** Right now I’d probably recommend holding thy nose and sending the RER A up, with curves as wide as possible, but that probably won’t be a satisfactory solution in the coming years as Lines 15 through 18 come online.

PS: here’s a quick-and-dirty sketch of how the RER lines would look on my map, which even though they’re still straighter than on the official Metro map, might illustrate the conflicts between some of the potential axes.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 5.21.57 PM


*Digression. It’s the same reason no one should care that Mornington Crescent, on the tube map, is always on the wrong side: having the station on the correct side introduces a lot of complexity for not a lot of payoff, and the Northern line is complicated enough already.

Digression of digression: and London and Paris can get away with playing fast and loose with their underground geography because they’re not laid out on a grid. Vignelli encountered this problem with his 1972 New York subway map, which placed the 50 St/Broadway station west of the 50 St/8 Av station, even when any New Yorker will tell you that at 50 St, Broadway is east of 8 Av. The contours of the system as rendered by Vignelli did not, at that point, match the contours of the system in New Yorkers’ heads, a system that hews closer to on-the-ground geography than usual because of their city’s grid, and so there was a clash.

Completely different digression: I hope Cerovic releases an INAT Grand Paris Express map some day.

**This, incidentally, is perhaps the only flaw in Harry Beck’s spectacular Paris Metro diagram: Line 1 is not drawn west-east but northwest-southeast. I, at least, don’t read Line 1 as northwest-southeast, so I don’t recognize Line 1 as Line One, and since how Line 1 is drawn affects how the rest of the map is drawn, I get lost.

I will say this, though: Beck handled Line 2’s troublesome “tail” from Etoile to Porte Dauphin better than any transit map designer before or since.

***Gut sez the Paris Metro map won’t be branded as for The Metro but instead for Paris City (i.e. within the Line 15 ring), so you’d have the Paris City map and the big Ile-de-France map side by side, but that seems unsatisfactory for some reason. I feel like the region needs a new map that’s both comprehensive and compact…if that’s even possible.


About theoditsek

I like going places.
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