Drawing of Times Square – 42nd Street station. Candy Chan

An architect created intricate blueprints of the underground.

In June, I spoke with designer David Gibson about ways to help pedestrians keep their bearings as they exit a subway station. One of his ideas was to put up a new kind of map inside the station:

Gibson suggests going back to basics: installing track and exit maps underground, so that riders get a feel for a station’s internal geography before they reach the surface. The maps would show where a station’s exits are and where they lead, “connecting the subterranean world with the world on the street.”

It turns out Gibson wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. New York-based architect Candy Chan just launched Project Subway NYC to visualize some of Manhattan’s most complicated subway stations, blueprint style.

Chan says she was inspired by Hong Kong’s subway, which displays platform layout maps in each station. Exits are denoted by letter, and signs point you to individual exits rather than intersections, as they do in New York. In Hong Kong, Chan says, people often make travel plans by saying, for instance, “I’ll meet you at exit A.” (Now imagine telling someone to meet you at an entrance to New York’s Times Square station. Good luck with that.)

(Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway)

To create her station layout maps, Chan set out with a clipboard, pen, paper, and a camera. Her method was relatively rigorous—counting subway tiles and stairs to estimate distances; using Google and MTA neighborhood maps to determine block lengths; taking pictures and making sketches by hand, then cross-referencing the two. Chan even considered acquiring blueprints from the MTA but ultimately decided against it, sticking to her first-person, camera-based approach. As long as she could connect the dots between different sections of each station, she says, granular accuracy took a backseat to legibility.

Chan transferred her preliminary sketches to AutoCAD, printed out the linework, and took it back to the subway to verify the proportions. Then, using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Rhino, she rendered these drawings in 3D to produce intricate maps of each station’s innards.

The first batch includes five stops along Broadway: Columbus Circle, Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square, and Union Square. But Chan hopes to do more, in Manhattan as well as in the outer boroughs. Since the project just launched two weeks ago, she’s gauging people’s reactions to decide which stations to explore next.

In a blog post, she also illustrates a potential application for her 3D approach: modeling paths through the underground labyrinth to specific aboveground destinations. Here’s how to get to Koreatown via the 34th Street station:

The path to Koreatown through 34th Street – Herald Square station. (Candy Chan)

Chan says the project has opened her eyes to the possibilities and pitfalls of wayfinding signage. “Signs are not always pointing at the shortest route,” she says. “They’re not wrong, but after mapping out the station, you realize [for instance] there’s actually a tunnel. If you have the whole picture, it’s just a matter of picking the shortest line between two points. But if it’s raining or snowing sometimes you want to stay underground for longer.”

With maps like Chan’s posted in every subway station, riders could make these decisions underground and find their way to the right exit faster. But until the MTA gets on board, you can purchase Chan’s station layout prints at her online shop.

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