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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.