What if London's tube map was just, well, better?

A detail from Cameron Booth's new version of the tube map. Image: Cameron Booth.

London’s Underground Diagram (or “Tube Map”) has long been regarded as an icon of informational design, pioneering the way for just about every other schematic transportation map in the world since its inception way back in 1931. But how much of that reputation is actually deserved these days?

Good question. And one which a lot of people – well, a lot of the sort of people with the sort of blogs that nerds like me read – have been asking recently.

Over the last few years, the tube map has added a whole flock of national rail lines, wheelchair symbols to highlight accessibility (or lack thereof), shading to show transport zones... And as a result has ended up looking a bit of a mess.

The most recent version of the tube map. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

Eugh.

So, a succession of graphic designers, wanting to show off their skills, have  taken on the project of redrawing it. (Strangely enough, hardly any of them seem to live in London.)

One of the latest is Cameron Booth, the Sydney-born, Portland-based designer whose blog we quoted at the beginning. His approach is less radical than those from Jug Cerovic (Paris), Thomas Lee (Hong Kong) or Rich Cousins (okay, he does live in London): rather than starting the map from scratch, Booth just tinkers with the existing version to make it a bit better.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

But what it lacks in radicalism it makes up in realism. These are the sort of incremental changes it's possible to imagine Transport for London actually making one day.

So, what does Booth do?

The zones are gone

Good. They're hideous, and only actually relevant to a small number of users.

Stations are neatly aligned wherever possible

...something that the zone map made harder. Sometimes that means keeping lines as straight as possible; at other times it's a matter of lining terminal stations up (those from Watford to Chingford, for example).

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

He's tidied up the currently wonky north western section of the Piccadilly line too:

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

So are interchange markers

Removing the odd thing where diagonal ones currently drop lower than vertical ones.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

More geographic accuracy where possible

In a few places the tube map is actively misleading (showing South Tottenham as north of Seven Sisters, for example). Booth has corrected a few of these.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

White strokes separating lines where they cross without interchange

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

Just because it's prettier.

Removing interchange circles at stations that have National Rail services

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

The old British Rail symbol does the job fine.

In his initial version of the map, Booth replaced the current clunky wheelchair symbols with little blue dots, which has the advantage of being clean, but would force users to look at the key to work out what they mean. So in another version he's replaced them with wheelchair symbols next to station names, or in interchange bubbles where they exist.

As a special bonus, in this version of the map he even includes the potential extension to the Bakerloo line (although it's difficult to imagine the station names “Old Kent Road 1” and “Old Kent Road 2” catching on). He's tinkered with out of station interchanges those where you have to walk a bit at street level – too.

Click to expand. Image: Cameron Booth.

The map still gets a bit confusing in the north east quadrant, thanks to a profusion of orange Overground lines. And Booth himself acknowledges there are a few problems he hasn't managed to solve (how to show those Crossrail stations that interchange with two tube stations, for example).

But as with so many of these unofficial takes on the map, the result are cleaner, prettier and easier to read than the official version.


Which leads me to wonder: why have London's transport authorities not fixed any of this? Come on TfL, what are you waiting for?

You can read more about Booth’s map on his blog. Or you can follow his excellent Transit Maps tumblr.

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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.