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.

 
 
 
 

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.