Object #10: The NYC Subway Map

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It’s fitting that we kick off our countdown of the 10 objects that tell the story of New York with an object that, quite literally, lets us explore the city. Even the most savvy, life-long New Yorker ends up consulting the subway map regularly. That's probably the case because — for better or worse — a subway map is the map that explains much of the city’s geography to us. (continue reading)

In fact, the amount of geographical information included on the current New York City subway map is fairly unusual among large cities. Most cities – like London and Tokyo – have schematic maps made up of clean, straight lines, which are pleasing to the eye but give you less information about what you’ll find once you get above ground. Not surprisingly, how to represent the street-level life of the city on a subway map has long been a major point of contention among New Yorkers.

Early maps were more realistic in their depictions. As the New York Times points out, the city’s 1948 map “tries to show the physical contortions of the subway lines, the way they wobble, zigzag and belly inward or out as the land dictates.” Then, in 1972, the city hired Italian designer Massimo Vignelli, who produced this more abstract map. That map was controversial and eventually abandoned, though some have called it "ahead of its time." Vignelli was recently asked by the MTA to update his 1972 design for the Agency's new Weekender website. The subway map as we know it today was introduced in 1979 and has been tweaked over the years, including a "simplified" update in 2010.

One of the problems of subway map design is that it has to be all things to all people. It has to be detailed enough explain how to get from the Bronx to the Battery on an express train on a Sunday night yet simple enough that a tourist who has no idea what the Bronx, the Battery or an express train is can read it.

We spoke with John Tauranac, the chief designer of the 1979 map, by phone. He described today's map not as "geographic, but quasi-geographic" and pointed out a few distortions on the map (1st, 2nd and 3rd Avenues are all incorrectly shown at an angle between 14th and 42nd streets). Speaking on the current iteration of his original design, he added "It’s made no progress. It’s taken enormous strides backwards. It is less informative and less aesthetically pleasing today than it was in 1979.”

The many versions of the subway map may have their own aesthetic objectors, but each map has certainly proved to be versatile. They've been framed and hung in homes across the country, turned into an avant-garde online musical instrument and even been plastered on shower curtains and underwear.  Of course, any object that tries to explain the city is going to be controversial. But maybe that quality makes it a quintessential New York object: whether it is loved or hated, everyone has an opinion on how to improve it.