Because this is a serious blog, this will be a serious post. I’m participating in the Transit Map World Cup! Here’s my bracket:
I will blog about my thoughts on each map as we go, and hopefully feature some alternate maps—historical, fan-made, both—that are worth showcasing. Let’s begin.
Red Line Match 1: New York v. Delhi
Neither map is particularly good. Given the network’s density and complexity, the New York subway map has no business being geographical and poorly differentiating between express and local services. I shouldn’t have to look below the station label to see which routes serve which station. And the way the map handles the jumble of lines that knot together in Downtown Brooklyn is just plain confusing.
The Delhi Metro map, however, is a monstrosity. Whatever usability advantages it has over the New York subway map—and it does have some—comes down entirely to how Delhi’s network is smaller and less complex. There are very few branches, and each service stops at each station. Easy.
Most of the issues I have with the Delhi Metro map comes down to how it uses the design language of the London Underground. The tube map, as it exists today, sucks. It’s the sort of thing you use for Baby’s First Transit Map and then quickly abandon as you develop your own style. So we’re already off on the wrong foot here, but then the map has the temerity to appropriate the tube map iconography poorly. The route lines are the wrong thickness and sprawl out at all different angles. Some of the station labels are angled, and this happens just rarely enough that they stick out. They use Railway Sans instead of Johnston. For God’s sake, if you’re running a rapid transit system and want to use Johnston, I’m pretty sure you have the cash to spring for the genuine article. The New York Subway map may suck wastewater, but even with all its flaws it was at least designed by competent people. Winner: New York.
Some Good Alternate Maps
New York’s official Weekender map remains the gold standard by which all other New York Subway maps should be judged. If that one were in this bracket, it’d make it all the way to the final.
Jug Cerovic redesigned the Delhi Metro map as part of his INAT project, and the result brings some much-needed structure to what was an otherwise formless design. The almost-circumferential Line 7 in particular was especially deftly handled. I also appreciated how it brought in Delhi’s conventional railway lines, showing how the Metro interacts with the broader railway network.
Green Line Match 1: London v. Istanbul
I shouldn’t be surprised by how unbelievably lopsided this poll’s been at this writing. On the one hand, given how much the tube map has declined since they dumped ole ‘Arry Beck, these two are much more evenly matched than they probably should be…but on the other hand, the tube map has a particular historical heft from being, well, The Tube Map. But it probably shouldn’t.
Let’s start with Istanbul. It’s…well…it’s okay. It’s in better shape than it was, and the routes are clear, easy to follow, and have a minimum of curves (usually), but there’s not a whole lot about it that stands out. It’s pedestrian. I do like how the map includes lines that won’t get built for another few decades, even if that’s not really best practices, because it tells me this thing is future-proofed to the teeth and will be good for a very long time.
Now for the tube map. It’s too dang small. This map size worked just fine back when they only had like seven or eight tube lines to worry about; now the network is simply too extensive to squeeze into a piece of paper this size without squashing things that really shouldn’t be squashed.
The other thing is, and this hasn’t been an issue until recently, there aren’t any National Rail services shown here, making this map fundamentally useless for most of South London. There is a map that does this yes, but it does so phenomenally poorly. In an era when TfL swallowed most North London suburban railway lines, the tube map needs to become less topheavy, and so should make more than a token effort to untangle that complicated mess down there.
This is more of a branding issue, but (as I have said repeatedly in multiple places) tube lines should be lettered and Overground lines numbered, to benefit the colorblind and non-Anglophonic.
But: even as a wreckage of its former self, the tube map still carries a distinct visual identity, and the way it filters down to all the other ways TfL presents itself to the public is nothing to sneeze at. There are still vestiges of its former glory sprinkled here and there, and for right now that’s enough to see it through, but if Stockholm wins the next Green Line match there will be a blowout. Winner: London.
A Good Alternate Map
I remain partial to this tube map Beck drew in 1961, showing the Victoria line cutting a nice clean diagonal through the center of London and on to the northeast. If you’re going to rip off the tube map’s design language, do yourself a favor and pillage from the maps Beck himself actually worked on. (And as someone who’s done that, I can vouch that it makes you think extra hard about how to straighten things out as much as humanly possible.)
Blue Line Match 1: Washington v. Sao Paulo
This map may not be as poorly executed as the Delhi Metro map, but the seams are still very clearly visible. There’s too many inexplicable curves. Certain elements don’t seem to fit right. The station labels are at maddening angles. The interchange symbol looks like a children’s toy. And the design language was probably fine in the beginning but is now an unsalvageably poor fit for the network as it currently exists. The map needs to be redesigned, like, yesterday.
Which map am I talking about here, Washington or Sao Paulo?
This was a tough match because both maps are terrible in pretty much the same way. Several things tipped it to Washington for me, though. First of all, the map’s design language—the thick lines, the bold station symbols, its general retro feel—is legitimately iconic. It is as integral to the Metro as the giant dimly-lit brutalist waffle-walled stations, and was a legitimately interesting design choice for an extensive yet simple network built in the 70s.
The second thing is that although the DC Metro’s design language has been implemented poorly, some care has still been taken to make sure the map coheres, to the point where even though the logic brain knows they should have drawn a completely new map when the Silver Line opened, the lizard brain still swears up and down there’s a good map in this mess somewhere, if only they’d move some things around so there aren’t as many curves and the station labels could all be horizontal. The point is, for all its faults, the DC Metro map doesn’t feel thrown together. The Sao Paulo Metro map does. Winner: Washington.
A Good Alternate Map
This bad boy from the DC Metro’s opening day in 1976 might potentially offer a path forward in tweaking the current map…assuming the people who actually ride the Metro every day don’t think of all those kinks and jogs as integral to their understanding of how the network is laid out.
Orange Line Match 1: Moscow v. Milan
What are you, nuts? Moscow all the way. The Milan Metro map does that thing most slapdash maps do where all the angles are just ever so slightly off, resulting in something that, like we’ve just seen with Delhi and Sao Paulo, looks like the people who designed it didn’t care. Also this map’s habit of not labeling each line with its number at each end might make things difficult for colorblind users. And the font makes me uncomfortable.
So many reasons why the Moscow Metro map is one of the best…if not the best…transit map currently in use. There’s those ring interchanges in the city center when three lines intersect. There’s the little shadow effect for when one line goes over another. There’s the extreme, almost obsessive attention to detail, to make sure everything fits together perfectly. But my big one is how it’s so easily able to integrate newly opened lines and services. I personally was amazed at how the map handles that bit where lines 8A and 11 share a stretch of track…especially where interchanges are concerned. This was something I wasn’t sure the map’s design language could handle up till now, and its solution blew me away with his head-smacking simplicity. Winner: Moscow.
Some Good Alternate Maps
Dmitry Goloub’s redesign of the Milan Metro map remains the best one on the internet. The lines are cleaner, suburban services are treated with some actual respect, and the sweeping arc of the M1 gives the map a structure that it was lacking up till now.
This one isn’t of the Metro, but it is a map of Moscow more people need to see. This thing depicts all the surface transit options—tram, bus, and trolleybus—within the city center. And, amazingly for a frequent transit map, each route is clean and easy to follow. Anyone who’s dealt with bus maps knows that making the city center coherent is a positively herculean act, but this thing somehow made it work. I don’t know who the designer is—I know about it through Constnatine Konovalov, but since I can’t read Russian I don’t remember if he took credit for it—but whoever’s responsible did a fantastic job.