London’s iconic tube map is 84 years old. It’s time to scrap it

The state of this. A crowded corner of the new Tube Map. Image: TfL.

Once upon a time, long enough ago that even CityMetric's granddad was in short trousers, London's tube map looked like, well, a map. The brightly coloured lines of the underground would wind their way among the backdrop of faint grey street map, and they did so with a pretty high level of geographical accuracy. You, quite literally, knew where you were.

But then in 1931 a young draughtsman named Harry Beck had one of those insights that changed the world so completely, that it’s become hard to understand how nobody had had it before: when you are on a train, you don't actually need to know where you are. All you actually need to know is what order the stations are in, and where your line connects up with others in the network. 

So Beck threw geographical accuracy to the winds and redesigned the map, so it was all straight lines and regular angles, and so that stations were pretty evenly spaced. The resulting map was so popular it’s become a symbol of London itself, and 84 years on maps like it are still in use in transport systems all over the world. Beck's tube map isn't just a map: it's a genuine design classic. 

Anyway, we were thinking that maybe it was time that Transport for London (TfL) junk the whole thing and start again. 

Actually, that's a bit unfair. The problem with the current map is not that Beck's principles are suddenly all wrong – but they are being horrifically badly applied. Here’s the version of the map published this month:

The horror! The horror! 

Euch.

There are a number of things here that make the whole thing a bit eye-watering. There's the two-tone grey zonal map, which makes it look like the whole thing's chosen its background from a collection of corporate art works of the 1970s. There's the bunching of lines in the north east corner, which means the map has lost the simplicity and readability that was meant to be its whole selling point. And there's the fact that at least six entirely separate routes are shown in the same tone of Overground orange, making the idea of seeing how stations link up at a glance basically laughable.

The hateful zonal fares thing is something TfL could switch off any time it wanted to. (It won't, but it could.) But the other two problems have the same much deeper roots. 


That’s because Beck's map was designed for a relatively simple network. There were only a handful of lines, so you only needed a handful of colours, and most of them radiated out from the centre to different parts of suburbia. They all cross stitched enthusiastically in central London, so you drew that bit bigger; but nonetheless the map was simple enough that you could generally see at a glance where your train would take you.

Today's network, though, is vastly more complex. It doesn't just have radial lines, but orbital ones galore. It's trying to show at least 22* different routes. Both those things are disproportionately concentrated in its north eastern quadrant. As a result, there aren't enough colours, and there's not enough space, hence: Euch.

So, at the very least, the tube map needs a redesign, to clean up some of that mess and bring a measure of readability back. But what if it’s time to go further? What if it’s time that we scrapped the thing altogether?

Your next eastbound train will arrive in 48 hours

The tube map, after all, is meant to show a coherent network, on which you can expect a reasonably consistent level of service. It doesn't show every railway line in London, but that was the whole point, really. Much of London’s heavy rail network has historically been infrequent and rubbish; the fact a line was on the tube map, in effect, was a mark of some sort of quality.

The current map, though, doesn't just show the tube: of the 20+ routes on there, only 11 of them are on the Underground at all. That wasn't really a problem until recently, because the DLR and the earlier waves of London Overground lines both provide high frequency metro-style services. But then the inclusion of the Emirates Airline meant that, suddenly, the map was showing something which really didn't deserve to be there.

And this latest expansion means the map suddenly features proper railway lines which aren't actually very good. The branches to Enfield Town and Cheshunt both run all of two trains an hour. The Romford to Upminster line runs at the same frequency**, when it runs at all, and has literally one train. 

By contrast, Wimbledon gets a train to Waterloo roughly every four minutes, but the map is oddly silent on this fact. (The obvious reason for this is that the route in question isn't run by TfL, but TfL's tram service also serves Wimbledon, and that doesn't appear on the tube map either, so god only knows.)

The bottom line here is that anyone who turns up to Turkey Street or Emerson Park expecting the same kind of service as they'd get on the Central line is in for a nasty shock, and the current tube map makes no effort to communicate this fact.

So what purpose does the tube map actually serve? It doesn’t show only the best services. It doesn’t show all the best services. It isn’t even easy to read. And it is, these days, remarkably ugly. So what’s it for?

There’s second London-wide transport map in circulation these days: the combined Tube & Rail Map. That’s also shockingly ugly, but does at least have the advantage of not missing off chunks of the capital's transport network purely, because TfL don't happen to run them yet.

Given all that, we have to ask – is there any point in keeping the tube map at all?

*By our count: 11 tube, six Overground, and one a piece for TfL Rail and the cable car. How many different routes the DLR is made up of is a matter of some debate – they're not branded as separate lines – but it's hard to find any way that it's less than three (two to Stratford and one to central London).

**Until I was 15 I lived in a house that backed onto this line, and as a child I’d sometimes play chicken with the trains. This was obviously quite catastrophically stupid, but it would have been a whole lot stupider if it wasn’t such a silly little line in the first place.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.