Mind the gap. Transport for London

Londoners recently got the chance to find out.

The London transit authority’s rarely-publicized, geographically-correct map (pdf) of the London Underground subway system is making the rounds, and it’s been a little unsettling.

On this map, disclosed by Transport for London in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, all of the Tube’s noodle-like contours are laid bare. It’s accurate, yes—at last, the Northern Line is revealed for the twisted mess it is! But it’s also disorienting, as the clean, bold lines of the iconic Tube map melt away.

When it comes to its transit map, London decided long ago that it was willing to forego accuracy for simplicity and design.

The current Tube map.(Transport for London)

But for the first few decades of its existence, the city’s (much smaller) underground system was mapped out geographically.

A draftsman named Harry Beck came up with the prototype of the current design in 1931. It was all straight lines, with 45- and 90-degree angles only, a modernist masterpiece divorced from the chaotic reality of the streets above. Transit planners initially rejected the map, saying its failure to allow Londoners to gauge real-life distances between stations would be too confusing for riders. A trial run proved them wrong.

Beck’s design principles went on to inform many of the world’s other transit systems. Paris’s current map resembles one Beck designed for fun in the 1940s. Washington, D.C.’s Metro sports decidedly Beckian angles. And the upcoming 24-hour Night Tube in London will have a map that follows on from the daytime version:

But the design-first approach doesn’t work everywhere. In 1976, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority commissioned designer Massimo Vignelli to revamp the subway map. His colorful end result shrank Central Park and distorted Manhattan’s geography in exchange for clean lines and angles like London’s—and New Yorkers hated it.

Why mess with a city whose easily navigable grid system—above 14th Street, anyway—already made perfect sense? Vignelli’s contribution was yanked in 1979, replaced with a version of the messy but geographically accurate version in use today.

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

More from Quartz:

Worried About the Safety of Drone Delivery? NASA Has Your Back

A Swiss Health Insurer Is Testing Fitness Trackers That Could Penalize Inactive People

How Companies Are Using LEGOs to Unlock Talent Employees Didn't Know They Had

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A woman crosses an overpass above the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
    Transportation

    Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

    In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

  2. Three men wearing suits raise shovels full of dirt in front of an American flag.
    Equity

    How Cities and States Can Stop the Incentive Madness

    Economist Timothy Bartik explains why the public costs of tax incentives often outweigh the benefits, and describes a model business-incentive package.

  3. A view of a Harlem corner.
    Equity

    How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

    An excerpt from Newcomers, a new book by Matthew L. Schuerman, documents the early history of the anti-gentrification and back-to-the-city movements.

  4. a bike rider and bus riders in Seattle.
    Perspective

    There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

    “Mobility as a Service” boosters say that technology can nudge drivers to adopt transit and micromobility. But big mode shifts will take more than a cool app.  

  5. Equity

    D.C.’s Vacant Stadium Dilemma

    RFK Stadium is taking up a very desirable plot of federal land in Washington, D.C.—and no one can agree what to do with it.

×