For the love of god, TfL, it’s time to redesign the tube map

My eyes! My beautiful eyes! Image: TfL.

It's just terrible, isn't it? Everything is just bloody terrible.

It's not enough that it's not Christmas any more, and we're all back at work, and it's cold and it's dark and we're all on a diet.

No, Transport for London had to release another update of the tube map, and somehow make it even worse than the last one.

I mean honestly:

Click to enlarge. You can see the full version on TfL's website here.

Okay, we're being a bit unfair there. The new map, as one might expect, is extremely similar to the old map. It contains a couple of minor updates (the Central Line is now stopping at Tottenham Court Road once again; it’s stopped stopping at Holland Park, while they sort out the lift). But something like 90 per cent of it is unchanged.

There are, however, two bigger changes. One is a bit better. Another is a lot worse.

Here's the good one. On the left is how the old map showed the southern reaches of the London Overground; on the right is how the new map shows the same area.

Click to enlarge.

That’s better, isn't it? When a line splits into three, it’s obviously going to look prettier if you make it symmetrical, rather than shoving the whole thing off to one side. So, yay.

Okay, that's the good news. Here's the bad. A whole swathe of stations in and around the Lower Lea Valley – from North Greenwich, right up to the hilariously misnamed Stratford International – have been moved to "zone 2/3". Here's the result.

Click to enlarge.

Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow.

The idea of putting stations on the zonal boundary isn't new. And it's generally a good money saver, for anyone who uses the relevant station. It means that people from Stratford, for example, can now travel into town on a cheaper zone 1 & 2 Travelcard, without raising fares for those who want to travel to elsewhere in zone 3.

Generally, though, it's individual stations that sit on the boundary, which means the cartographer can just do this:

Here, though, it's a huge chunk of east London. And the result, on the map, is horrible. So horrible that TfL's draftsman have had to invent an entirely new shade of grey just to show what's going on:


Click to enlarge.

There is some controversy at the moment as to whether the zonal system is fair way of structuring TfL's fares system (the Green party say that it doesn't; almost everyone else disagrees). But what is not controversial at all is that this system is utterly wrecking the tube map, turning a design classic into an unwieldly mess, with more shades of grey than a badly written piece of mummy porn.

If this were the only problem with the map it might be forgivable, but it isn't. It still retains all the flaws of the last version. A profusion of different lines are shown in Overground orange; routes that run every two minutes are made no more prominent than those that run twice an hour; that sodding cable car is still there; and the area around Hackney looks like this:

Click to enlarge.

It would not be impossible to design a new map that addresses some or all of these problems – and the reason that we know this is because people have done it. Remember this, from designer Rick Cousins?

Click to enlarge.

Or this from some guy in Hong Kong?

Click to enlarge.

Or this from Paris-based designer Jug Cerović?

Don't click to enlarge this one, it won't do anything.

None of these efforts are perfect; but they do show that it’s still possible to come up with a version of the tube map that contains vast quantities of information without collapsing into an incoherent mess. And none of them need four different shades of grey to do it.

So please, TfL, we beg of you. You can fix this. We know you can fix this. January is hard enough. Give us a little light in the darkness. Please, redesign the tube map from scratch.

Yes, we’re obsessed, shut up you clicked it didn’t you?

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Uncredited maps courtesy of Transport for London.


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.