Infographic Of The Day: NYC Finally Builds A Better Subway Map

It’s just in limited use for now, but we see the makings of a vast improvement.

Infographic Of The Day: NYC Finally Builds A Better Subway Map

Hardcore New Yorkers tend to shake their heads at tourists confusedly poring over the NYC Subway Map. After all, what could possibly be so confusing about that damn thing? A lot, actually.


But the map has been around so long and changed so little from its basic navigation that the problems tend to hide in plain sight. There is, however, a fascinating little suggestion at improvements buried on the MTA’s website. Understanding what makes it great takes a bit of comparison though.

First, let’s look at the current map:

This was recently touted as the map’s newer, friendlier version. But there are significant problems that remain: For one, multiple trains travel down single-colored tracks on this map. Take the blue line for example: The C local train makes all the stops along the line. But the A express train only stops at the open circles. That’s a decent solution to a hard problem, but the open circles too-often coincide with transfers to other trains. So is it telling you about an express stop or a transfer? You can see how confusion arises, when you’ve never read the map before.

Compare that to the terrific Weekender, a little online guide which just recently appeared with no fanfare, buried on the MTA’s byzantine website:

[Click to view interactive version]

The first thing you’ll notice is that each train gets its own line. This is partly out of necessity: This map in particular is a guide to service interruptions, so the trains had to be broken apart to show that one might not be running at a given stop, even while another on the same line is running fine. (The best part is that in the interactive version, the affected stations actually blink.) But a byproduct of the design is that it shows you far more clearly what your travel options at any given station actually are. (One of our readers rightly points out that this layout was a feature of the great Massimo Vignelli’s design from 1968 1972.)

There are additional details that help the overall readability: For one, the express stops are underscored with bold type; the local stops get a lighter face. Meanwhile, the pedestrian links between lines are shown using simple black lines, at right angles.

Now, to be clear, you couldn’t simply lift these ideas and implement them on the Subway Map as it now stands. That’s because the second map you see above has done away with the conceit of accurately representing New York’s geography.

One of the reasons the current map is so impossibly cramped is that it’s bastardized: It attempts to show the abstract network of train lines, and the major streets above ground. Thus, one of the amazing things you often see is people using the Subway Map as a surface map of New York. You could argue that there’s some utility to that. You could also argue that it’s pointless, since the map doesn’t work particularly well above-ground–rather, it works well enough to convince some people that its useful, when, in fact, it’s not.

I can think of ways you could blend these approaches. What if we had a map more like the Weekender, with a slightly abstracted geography and only major thoroughfares overlaid onto it? Or what if the geography was revealed more forcefully on the opposite side of the page that the Subway Map was printed on, thereby breaking the hybrid functionality of the current map into two separate parts? In each case, the point wouldn’t be to comprehensively represent the streets–but rather, to give someone just enough information that they can fine landmarks to navigate above ground.


With the current Subway Map, you have something struggling to serve two purposes, and therefore not doing a particularly good job at either.

[Image: Flickr user ShellyS]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.