Lynch's map of the NYC subway is geographically accurate.
This cartographer has designed a geographically accurate map of the NYC subway. Andrew Lynch

One cartographer has done the heavy lifting, and rail fans are pumped.

“The paradox about a map,” says Andrew Lynch, “is that it’s just as much about what is shown as what is not.” He would certainly know.

The CUNY Hunter graduate writes extensively on his own website about the transit system’s history and infrastructure, as well as his own ideas on how to improve service. About six months ago, he started drawing small to-scale sections of the subway to see if his ideas were even possible. “I quickly realized that I was going to want a full map to play with,” he says.

Earlier this month, Lynch finished a geographically accurate New York City subway map—a cartographic task that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Even the MTA current map—which rejects Massimo Vignelli’s polarizing, abstract diagram from the 1970s in favor of realism—makes Manhattan bigger for the sake of service legibility.

Lynch’s final design resembles un-abstracted versions of recent map updates by Vignelli Associates. (Andrew Lynch)

“I’ve spent years collecting every map I could find, researching on subway forums, and talking to people who’ve been in the tunnels,” says Lynch. But what he had just wasn’t accurate enough.

Lynch’s latest map exists to help him figure out which of his ideas for service improvement need to be reworked or tossed out, but it’s become a hot item. “People have been asking for copies [but] I didn’t even think anyone would want one—I didn’t look into printing them,” says Lynch. As one should expect out of the niche community eating up this project, “rail fans online have come out and given me so many great corrections.”

(Andrew Lynch)

The final design resembles un-abstracted versions of recent map updates by Vignelli Associates that the MTA has rolled out for special occasions such as Super Bowl XLVIII, and the opening of the Second Avenue Subway. His version also comes with a pleasant surprise—the system’s rail yards. “It’s nice to see them there so people can understand that trains actually go somewhere at the end of the night,” he says.

For practical reasons, it’s unlikely you’ll see MTA embrace a project like Lynch’s. “There are areas like lower Manhattan, midtown, and downtown Brooklyn where there are just too many lines in close proximity for a legible map to be made,” he notes. “The reverse is true in the outer boroughs, where you have lots of empty space and the lines are further apart.” Such a project would also mean printing a much, much bigger map.

About the Author

Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.

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