“Greyer than John Major's underpants”: Manchester's new Metrolink map

Metrolink in action. Image: Getty.

“Metrolink is always looking at ways to improve information about services.”

Is it? That's good.

“A new-style Metrolink network map – designed to be more accessible, easy-to-understand and include more information – is now being rolled out to all tram stops.”

Exciting!

“As the tram network expands with more lines and services, the new map design will allow us to include more information for passengers.”

Oh, wow, we *love* information! I bet this new map is going to be better than ev-

“The name of stops is more prominent and – instead of using coloured lines – the map identifies services using a combination of letters and colours alongside arrows to show direction of travel-”

-What.

So it is that the new Metrolink map – actually, new is a misnomer; it's been out since August, it's just that we've only just noticed it – rather breaks with venerable metro map tradition.

Most such maps use a variety of bright colours to illustrate their different lines. Thus, you can see at a glance, say, that the District line heads east to Upminster, or that the A train goes from Harlem to Far Rockaway.

Until recently, Manchester's tram network followed a similar pattern. Here's the old map:

Click to expand.

Look at those calming pastel shades. Isn’t that lovely?

The new version, though, eschews this long established practice. And these various pastel shades have been replaced by, well, this:

Click to expand.

Grey. Grey, as far as the eye can see. Greyer than John Major's underpants on the morning of laundry day.

Metrolink say the new map is “more accessible for the people with colourblindness”. And making transport, and the information  that accompanies it, accessible to people regardless of disability is a noble aim.

But it's not entirely clear why this meant the colour had to go altogether. Couldn't these...

...simply have been added to the existing map, without losing the line colours?

One possible explanation for why they weren't: the changes aren't – or at least, aren’t exclusively – about accessibility after all. Unlike the trains on London's tube or New York's subway, all the trams on Manchester's Metrolink are crowded into a small number of routes across the city centre.

The colour scheme means you end up with a bit that looks like this:

Five coloured lines along the same stretch of track. As more branches have opened, more colours have been added, making the map prettier but increasingly unwieldy.


What impact the opening of the Second City Crossing through Exchange Square will have on all this remains to be seen. It’s not yet clear whether different routes will use different bits of track, or whether most will use both. (The two crossings are only a few hundred metres from each other.) If the latter, though, you’d end up with two adjacent multicoloured strips, making the map almost unreadable.

So, the colour scheme has gone, and all that is left is grey. Pity. 

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In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.