Possibly Futile Clarification

by Don Friedman on August 17, 2017

These maps of subway stations have been getting a fair amount of exposure lately. I suspect that in part it’s because they are beautiful drawings. Considering them just as abstract art, they’re great to look at; the fact that they are reasonable accurate and detailed maps of subway stations makes them incredible.

Subway stations are extremely difficult to represent visually. They are interiors without exteriors, irregularly shaped in plan, with multiple levels that often don’t overlap very much, with portions that are inaccessible to people inside. Because of switch-backs in stairs and escalators, the orientation of the stations relative to the street is often hard to determine, which is why a lot of people come up to the street in a station they don’t travel to often stop and look around to figure out where they actually are.

The problem with those beautiful maps is that I doubt they will help very much. People in general are not good at translating spatial relationships from a map to reality. Even those of us who deal with this issue every day have to work at it. For example, a long time ago I lived near the Columbus Circle station shown in the first illustration in the article. The southwesternmost stair (the one shown as exiting near Sur La Table) was the one nearest my apartment, so that’s the one I used on a regular basis. That stair comes up to the street within the body of the Hearst Building, facing Eighth Avenue a bit south of 57th Street. The drawing correctly shows the stair at the southwest corner of Eighth and 57th, but that’s about it. This is nit-picking except that this issue – being able to orient yourself both within a station and when exiting one – is the reason that these maps are technically interesting. The maps require too much knowledge of the stations to be really helpful to someone who doesn’t know them; and the use of axonometric projections can, for people unfamiliar with this type of drawing, be confusing. The Columbus monument is not inside the Columbus Circle station, it’s above it, no matter what it looks like here.

The problem of showing the stations in a useful matter is intractable. Probably having separate plans for each level, as is true of the maps at Grand Central, is the best solution, as it doesn’t require people to navigate unfamiliar 3D projections. It’s nowhere near as good-looking, but it’s more readable for the intended audience.

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