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ixd urban visual

NYC subway maps / The great debate of 2007

A graph­ic design­er named Eddie Jab­bour has pro­posed an alter­na­tive design for NYC sub­way maps. The New York Times wrote about it last week, and since then blogs have been blow­ing up over it. 37 sig­nals eval­u­at­ed it, and applauds the effort to increase usabil­i­ty at the expense of geo­graph­ic accu­ra­cy: "Sub­way map read­ers want to know how to get from A to B a lot more than they want to know the exact curve of the tracks along the way. Some­times truth is less impor­tant than knowl­edge." If points A & B are always sub­way sta­tions, I whole­heart­ed­ly approve. As seen in snip­pet form below, the redesign much more clear­ly presents infor­ma­tion that is rel­e­vant on the sub­way.

Brooklyn train line comparison

Eddie Jabbour's pro­posed redesign trades geo­graph­i­cal accu­ra­cy for read­abil­i­ty But a sub­way trip is always part of a big­ger logis­ti­cal process. You're not just try­ing to get from Atlantic Avenue Sta­tion to Astor Place Sta­tion. You're try­ing to get from an apart­ment on Pres­i­dent Street to the place where your friend cooks near Wash­ing­ton Square Park. And often the opti­mal sub­way route is not avail­able to you; the line you want to take is extreme­ly delayed; anoth­er line is not run­ning; anoth­er is express past 9pm; anoth­er only runs to this sta­tion on Sun­days; etc; etc. The real­i­ty is that you need to be able to impro­vise when you're in the sub­way sys­tem, and a map that is not geo­graph­i­cal­ly accu­rate inhibits your abil­i­ty to adjust to the real­i­ties of the system.Which brings me to the Lon­don A‑Z. Lon­don can get away with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sub­way map because it has a com­pan­ion book that allows you to fig­ure out stuff like that. So the Cir­cle line isn't run­ning? Trust­ing the Tube map to go to the next near­est sta­tion may be dis­as­trous, but you can always find your des­ti­na­tion in your trusty A‑Z, scan for anoth­er sta­tion near­by, etc. More­over, mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers often place the A‑Z grid loca­tion next to an event list­ing. Remov­ing geo­graph­i­cal con­text from the NYC map may make it eas­i­er to scan, but at this point, I feel like it's per­haps pre­ma­ture­ly reduc­tive. On the oth­er hand, a reduc­tion of infor­ma­tion on the sub­way map may sim­ply under­score and high­light (and ital­i­cize and cap­i­tal­ize) the need for a NYC A‑Z. Or per­haps the MTA itself just needs to be more pre­dictable. Or maybe every­thing should stay the same so every trav­el­er can have that spe­cial scary feel­ing of being strand­ed in Brook­lyn at 2am on a weeknight.UPDATE: My friend Jonathan Gabel, a New York res­i­dent for the last 13 years, had some inter­est­ing thoughts on the mat­ter:

The cur­rent map is a total fab­ri­ca­tion of geog­ra­phy any­way — Man­hat­tan is made fat and short, and Brook­lyn and Queens lose all of their length. In fact, the L line through Williams­burg and Bush­wick is actu­al­ly more accu­rate in the changed map, as it makes a rad­i­cal zig-zag through the area. For instance, the L train runs: Lorimer, Gra­ham, Grand, Mon­trose. From Niki's house, 8 blocks north of the Gra­ham stop, to meet our friends who's live 4 blocks East of the Mon­trose stop, we often walk to Man­hat­tan Ave, one block West of the Lorimer stop because it is half way between our hous­es. Fig­ure that one out. I have nev­er seen the Lon­don A‑Z but I looked at one of the NFT (not for tourists) guides to New York and found it wasn't real­ly help­ful, specif­i­cal­ly because it doesn't real­ly help you find address­es. Even the address­es of things it is telling you about — like restau­rants. Say you want to find Snacky's in Williams­burg. It shows you a map of the gen­er­al area, and list­ings of all the restau­rants and oth­er things by street address, next to the map of the area. The map is bul­let-rid­dled with lit­tle icons to tell you where all bars/ restaurants/ laundromats/ clubs/ sweatshops/ motor­cy­cle-repair-shops are — but every bar/restaurant/laundromat/club/sweatshop/motorcyclerepairshop is only labeled with the sign for b/r/lc/ds/mrs and no num­ber. So to find your Snacky's you have to look at 20 r's and try to fig­ure out which one it is, and ignore 40 b's, 20 l's, 5 c's 50 s's that are cov­er­ing all the names of the streets. It's like that inter­face you described for the New York­er — it takes all the plea­sure out of car­tog­ra­phy. I would like to see a guide­book that makes dis­cov­er­ing one's way plea­sur­able.

Amen to plea­sure.