Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The latest redesign comes from a Moscow-based artist, and recasts the subway’s lines into a circular pattern.
Paris has one of the busiest metros in the world, with roughly 300 stations scattered throughout nearly 40 square miles. The city’s metro was recently ranked the world’s second most complex subway system by theoretical physicists and mathematicians, after New York’s. It follows, then, that the metro system’s map is a bit chaotic.
When the Moscow-based graphic designer Constantine Konovalov visited the city, he found himself struggling to use the metro’s labyrinthine official map. “The main problem was that it is hard to find the station [you’re at], and it is very easy to lose sight of it,” he tells CityLab in an email. “There are no memorable graphic forms to make it easier to navigate.”
So Konovalov and his team of artists redesigned the map, plotting it on a 30-degree grid and depicting some of the metro’s stops in a circular pattern. Other stops on various lines were straightened, and curves smoothed out.
To get a better idea of how Konovalov’s map stacks up to the original (and to other interpretations), we consulted Max Roberts, a psychologist at the University of Essex who studies how the the design of transit maps affect their usefulness.
What stands out most about Konovalov’s interpretation is the circular parts of the design. Lines 2 and 6 (the blue and green lines) form a perfect ring around the metro’s center, as do two tram routes and the prospective Line 15. The rest of the lines are arranged so that they seem to branch off from a central point at different angles. Not only does the circular pattern help frame the map and focus the user’s attention, but “the circles on the map also delineate the city into segments,” says Konovalov.
“It sort of forces [the map] into a level of organization you've just never seen before,” says Roberts, who has used the same guiding principles in his own redesign of city transit maps. But circular maps aren’t perfect, he adds. The structure of Paris’s metro network, for example, is not actually a circle. By molding its transit map into that shape, a designer risks distorting the density of stations in different regions.
Konovalov also reimagines the map on a 30-degree grid. Most transit maps, including the official Paris Metro map, use a 45-degree grid, meaning that most lines run along horizontal, vertical, and diagonal axes. In Konovalov’s map, however, he’s rotated the axes so that many of the lines run diagonally. This, according to Konovalov, minimizes sharp visual turns. “The smaller the bend in the line, the easier it is to track with your eyes and to find the intersections with other lines,” he says.
“If the angles of the line in reality don't match what you're using for the map, you're going to have to keep bending them to actually get them to go to the right places,” says Roberts. “So [Konovalov] is trying to get the design rules to match what the metro lines in Paris actually do.”
Konovalov, who has worked with the Moscow Department of Transportation, joins a handful of designers—including Roberts—who have tried to untangle Paris’s confusing metro map. And since Paris’s metro is so notoriously complicated, each map has its flaws.
“It's one of the densest metro networks in the world,” Roberts says. “There are so many lines, so close together. .. It's also a very historic network, and the lines take very unpredictable trajectories.”
He adds: “You're never going to get what I call an ‘eureka map’—one that's so wonderfully clear everyone says, ‘Wow, suddenly Paris makes sense to me.’”
To determine if a new map really is easier to use, concrete data is needed. Researchers have to test many factors, such as how long it would take a person to navigate the city using that map. Because according to Robert’s preliminary research, there is no correlation between someone’s opinion about a map and how usable that map actually is.
In a small study, for example, Roberts asked 100 people to rate how they perceived the usability of nine versions of London’s subway map. Each map prioritized different design principles. Octolinear maps that followed the 45-degree grid scored higher than curvilinear ones that turned transit lines into smooth curves . A follow-up study had 22 volunteers use the two versions to plan various trips. Overall, Roberts found that it took people less time to plan journeys on the curvilinear map, despite its lower rating from surveys.
“What that means for any map for a city like Paris is that it’s never going to look real easy and clear,” he says. “You can't go by first [design] principles, you can't trust of the designer, you've got to have these usability data.”
Konovalov says he is still tweaking the map based on user feedback. In fact, it has gone through eight updated versions since it was released roughly a week ago.