Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Subway Maps

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There was a recent article on the Gothamist as to the difficulty neophytes have with the unique nomenclature of the New York Subway, in that in most American cities where lines are color-coded, they refer to the line by its color. The Chicago L, the Boston T, the DC Metro – all of them refer to their lines by their colors. New Yorkers don’t, despite the fact that the system is color-coded.

New York is indeed unique in that regard, but why? Well, for starters, New York indeed tried many styles and color schemes on its own before settling on the current one. How to adequately explain the system is a question posed by many mapmakers over the years. Most of the historic maps color-code by original company – the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Corporation, and the Independent Subway System – so as to highlight where free inter-system transfers were.

Such distinctions aren’t important nowadays, as the system is sufficiently unified that most ostensible transfers are readily available despite the original operator of the line. The late Massimo Vignelli’s map in 1972 thus gave each route its own unique color, and rendered the map devoid of geographic relation so as to create a diagram that could be more easily parsed.

The result is something of a veritable kaleidoscope of pastels. While its creator was lionized for its artistic creativity, and was subsequently commissioned to design The Weekender on the MTA’s website, the city had moved on in 1979 to something a tad more useful as a map. Michael Hertz’ map is the one the city has published since.

In this map and largely every map since, the color scheme has been uniform by line. This represents the third template the NYC Subway has made in that regard, but the reason is, as mentioned before, due to New York’s unique nature.

To explain the core issue, first must be explained the difference between a route and a line. A subway line is a length of track. A subway route is the path a train uses. Routes may use multiple lines.

For instance, the A train is known as the Eighth Avenue Express. Eighth Avenue is one of the lines that the route uses. That route also uses the Fulton Street Line and the Rockaway Line. The E train is another route that also use the Eighth Avenue Line. However, it uses the Archer Avenue Line and the Queens Boulevard Line as well.

With the exception of the Nassau Street Line and the Crosstown Line, all colors are based on what lines each route takes when they run through Midtown Manhattan. The exceptions don’t go through Midtown Manhattan. Hence, the A and the E are both blue trains, because both their routes use the Eighth Avenue Line when travelling through Midtown Manhattan. However, referring to routes by their color doesn’t help travelers at all, as they are wildly divergent when heading away from Midtown Manhattan.

By contrast, most systems – like the DC Metro, the Chicago L and the Boston T – generally have coterminous routes and lines: Each route is also its own line, and thus each color is unique to a route.

This hasn’t stopped new mapmakers from attempting to standardize maps between systems. Amateur mapmaker Chris Whong tried doing the DC style, for instance, with NYC, and by doing so reduced every route to its base color.

To quote blogger Cameron Booth, information is lost when attempting to recreate that distinction:

While the map looks great, it really also shows how unsuited the bold, simplistic approach taken by the DC diagram is to a complex transit system like New York’s.

One of the latest entrants for that conundrum, Jug Cerovic, added New York in his attempt to standardize all subway maps in the world, eschewing geography for pure schematics, choosing an alternate color scheme and giving each route its own color.

To quote Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas, the map suffers for the same reasons the Vignelli map suffered:

“…if you’re going to try to produce a quasi-geographic schematic, it must have some relation to reality. It cannot be so divorced from the city layout to be useless as a map and as a navigation tool.”

Eddie Jabbour sells KickMap, which is a divide between the Hertz map and the Vignelli map, wherein the Hertz color scheme and the Vignelli route lines are merged.

As can be seen, exactly what to label a route in the New York subway is complicated indeed. Hence, when trundling under Midtown, it’s not the Green line, nor even the Lexington Ave line, but in New Yorker parlance, the “4/5/6.”

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