What if London's tube map was just, well, better?

A detail from Cameron Booth's new version of the tube map. Image: Cameron Booth.

London’s Underground Diagram (or “Tube Map”) has long been regarded as an icon of informational design, pioneering the way for just about every other schematic transportation map in the world since its inception way back in 1931. But how much of that reputation is actually deserved these days?

Good question. And one which a lot of people – well, a lot of the sort of people with the sort of blogs that nerds like me read – have been asking recently.

Over the last few years, the tube map has added a whole flock of national rail lines, wheelchair symbols to highlight accessibility (or lack thereof), shading to show transport zones... And as a result has ended up looking a bit of a mess.

The most recent version of the tube map. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

Eugh.

So, a succession of graphic designers, wanting to show off their skills, have  taken on the project of redrawing it. (Strangely enough, hardly any of them seem to live in London.)

One of the latest is Cameron Booth, the Sydney-born, Portland-based designer whose blog we quoted at the beginning. His approach is less radical than those from Jug Cerovic (Paris), Thomas Lee (Hong Kong) or Rich Cousins (okay, he does live in London): rather than starting the map from scratch, Booth just tinkers with the existing version to make it a bit better.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

But what it lacks in radicalism it makes up in realism. These are the sort of incremental changes it's possible to imagine Transport for London actually making one day.

So, what does Booth do?

The zones are gone

Good. They're hideous, and only actually relevant to a small number of users.

Stations are neatly aligned wherever possible

...something that the zone map made harder. Sometimes that means keeping lines as straight as possible; at other times it's a matter of lining terminal stations up (those from Watford to Chingford, for example).

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

He's tidied up the currently wonky north western section of the Piccadilly line too:

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

So are interchange markers

Removing the odd thing where diagonal ones currently drop lower than vertical ones.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

More geographic accuracy where possible

In a few places the tube map is actively misleading (showing South Tottenham as north of Seven Sisters, for example). Booth has corrected a few of these.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

White strokes separating lines where they cross without interchange

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

Just because it's prettier.

Removing interchange circles at stations that have National Rail services

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

The old British Rail symbol does the job fine.

In his initial version of the map, Booth replaced the current clunky wheelchair symbols with little blue dots, which has the advantage of being clean, but would force users to look at the key to work out what they mean. So in another version he's replaced them with wheelchair symbols next to station names, or in interchange bubbles where they exist.

As a special bonus, in this version of the map he even includes the potential extension to the Bakerloo line (although it's difficult to imagine the station names “Old Kent Road 1” and “Old Kent Road 2” catching on). He's tinkered with out of station interchanges those where you have to walk a bit at street level – too.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

The map still gets a bit confusing in the north east quadrant, thanks to a profusion of orange Overground lines. And Booth himself acknowledges there are a few problems he hasn't managed to solve (how to show those Crossrail stations that interchange with two tube stations, for example).

But as with so many of these unofficial takes on the map, the result are cleaner, prettier and easier to read than the official version.


Which leads me to wonder: why have London's transport authorities not fixed any of this? Come on TfL, what are you waiting for?

You can read more about Booth’s map on his blog. Or you can follow his excellent Transit Maps tumblr.

Like us on Facebook too, if you like.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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