It's time to redesign the New York City subway map. Here's how

A visitor plots their route through the New York Subway system. Image: Getty.

The New York City subway signage is considered iconic: black and white signs with Helvetica, showing just the information subway riders need, at the points they need it, and nothing more. 

After decades it still does its job remarkably well. Originally the signs were black text on a white background instead of the current reverse scheme of white on black, but not much else has changed since then.

However, the map is a different story altogether. The 1972 map designed by Massimo Vignelli is considered a design classic and can be found in the collections of MoMA – even though it was replaced over 30 years ago by being too abstract for the citizens of New York City.

The current map, designed by a committee lead by John Tauranac in 1978, is a lot more geographically accurate, but looks quite different from the rest of the subway signage. The free flowing lines also add messiness to the overall feeling of the map.

This feeling is amplified by the fact that a big portion of the station names are not aligned horizontally. The map shows quite a few street names, but not really enough to function as a proper street map. Interestingly, the first version of the map showed more street names than the current version does.

The current map also combines trains running along the same trunk route to one single line, and specifies which trains stop at each stations below the station names. On one hand this brings clarity, especially to Manhattan, which would otherwise be full of crisscrossing lines. But on the other hand, it makes it harder to quickly comprehend which lines run express and which local.

Lines running local, then express, and then local again, is a special feature of the New York City subway that no map does a good job showing properly: this can be especially confusing for tourists. 

Details from the Weekender map (Vignelli) on the left and the official map (Tauranac) on the right.

The diagrammatic map designed by Vignelli, that is currently used in its updated incarnation in the Weekender app, does a better job than the official map in this regard by showing every train as a separate line – but it is still hard to get an overall understanding of the express sections since every line is drawn with an equal weight.

The New Subway Map

My goal was to create a subway map that is beautiful to look at, easy to use and custom designed for New York City. This is the result.

"So good looking you want to hang it on the wall, and so easy to use it becomes your subway map of choice." Image: Tommi Moilanen.

One of these NYC specific challenges was to find an appropriate way to differentiate between express and local trains. After having lived almost a year in New York City before starting this map project, I had never realized that D train runs basically all of Manhattan as express. It was impossible to see that from either of the official maps, without actually following the lines specifically trying to decipher that piece of information. A quick glance at the map just wasn’t enough.

Another unique feature of New York City are the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island). They are almost like cities within a city, and the navigation in the subway system is build around them. 

You don’t really need to know the exact geography of the area to be able to navigate in the city. You just need to know where the different boroughs are located.

Sign above a subway platform. Image: Tommi Moilanen.

“Brooklyn bound express train” or Queens bound local train” are something you can hear in the announcements and see used in the station signs. By clearly showing where the boroughs are, and by differentiating between express and local trains, the map nicely matches the rest of the navigation scheme.

A detail of the new map, showing Midtown Manhattan and Central Park. Image: Tommi Moilanen.

One of the only elements of geography that anyone visiting or living in New York City can be counted on to know with almost 100 per cent certainty is Central Park and its location in the middle of Manhattan. Lots of big cities have famous parks, but the perfectly rectangular shape, the prominent location and the overall lack of green space in the city makes Central Park pretty special. 

I wanted this to be reflected in the map. Moreover, most of the tourist attractions are below Central Park. It kind of functions as a “You Are Here” dot, except that it always remains in the exact same spot on the map.

Instead of showing lots of geographical details, the map highlight sights, major landmarks and museums. Those are useful navigational aides to many people. Streets are more specific to where you happen to be heading at any given time, and most of them are useless most of the time – but people can be counted on to know at least some of the major landmarks.

The numbered grid system used in New York City makes it easy to navigate the streets above ground, especially in Manhattan; and since the subway lines often follow the grid, it makes sense to include the major streets that subway lines run along into the map. They are also used in the rest of signage system on the platforms and in the trains: for example, “6 Av Local” or “Broadway Local”.

Times Square 42 St station. Image: Tommi Moilanen.

Lots of major transfer stations also happen to coincide with attractions like Times Square or Grand Central. Making these stations more prominent than the rest of the stations makes both navigating the system and locating yourself on the map easier. 
This way it is also possible to show all the trains stopping at a specific station in a row below the station name, which is exactly the way you would see them at station entrances. I like this kind of connection between the map and the real world.

A detail showing Atlantic Av-Barclays Center Station. Image: Tommi Moilanen.

Highlighting major transfer points also brings clarity to otherwise messy intersections like the area around Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Rush hour service changes

Additional improvements over the current maps are a clearer way to show rush hour extensions and skip-stop trains: riders should now be able to understand these just by looking at the map. 

The map also shows PATH stops within Manhattan as equal to the rest of the subway stops, since it really is a subway type rapid transit system connecting New Jersey to Manhattan. PATH also accepts Metro Card, as does AirTrain JFK which is treated in a similar manner on the map.

A detail from the map, showing the PATH station in Lower Manhattan. Image: Tommi Moilanen.

As with any design, the way it looks is as important as the way it functions. The Vignelli map is still so popular because it simply looks good. The updated version is also pretty geographically accurate, which many people may not realize since the geographic inaccuracy of the original map is so often referenced.

My design uses 30, 60 and 90 degree angles to show subway lines, instead of the more common 45 and 90 angles also used by the Vignelli map. This allows for a better geographic accuracy, while still looking more organized than the free form lines of the current map (although free form is naturally even more geographically accurate).

A screenshot of Google Maps with transit layer turned on. Image: Google.

It is worth remembering that no NYC subway map will be completely geographically accurate, since Manhattan has so many lines in such a small space compared to the rest of the city. Complete accuracy is not even needed in a subway map – ultimately, it’s about finding a way from one station to another through the network.

Subway/metro maps should always look like they belong to the specific city they were designed for, and to that specific city only. Design is always context specific and as shown above, New York City, like any other city for that matter, has its own specific features and character that should be reflected in the design.


Some of the characteristics of the new map summarised:

  • The right balance between utility and good looks;
  • The right balance between simplicity and geographic accuracy;
  • Works well with the rest of the signage system;
  • Each train is shown as a separate line;
  • There is a clear distinction between local and express trains;
  • No additional instructions needed to read the map;
  • The special characteristics of NYC are respected.

Tommi Moilanen is a New York-based designer. He tweets as @tviit.

If you would like to know when a 24 x 30 poster of his map becomes available for order, you can sign up for an email alert here.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.