Subway Maps

by Don Friedman on November 4, 2016

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There is a small industry of people creating new maps for the New York City subway, unasked by the MTA. I’m not entirely sure why other than it’s an interesting problem in cartography: an undistorted map would be hard to read, while an overly-distorted one would be misleading.

The problem is that the spacing of the lines varies widely, with several only one block apart in midtown (6th Avenue, 7th Avenue, 8th Avenue, and Broadway), downtown, and downtown Brooklyn, but large areas of the fringes of the city without any lines at all. In the days before public internet maps, I drew the subway lines onto a street map so that I’d know how far it was from any given location to a station. The current map has been in use for several decades and has major streets shown. It is somewhat distorted, with distances in Manhattan shown too large and those in the other boroughs shown too small. Amusingly, New Jersey seems to have disappeared from the west side of the Hudson.

The Vignelli map that was in use when I was a kid is wildly distorted but beautiful as abstract art. It is an icon that has been updated even though it is no longer the official map, and has even been updated for the not-yet-in-service Second Avenue line.

The latest attempt is a less distorted than Vignelli but a bit more distorted than the official map. It’s big advantage is that it ties the subway into the other commuter railroads.

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