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.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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