photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009
London's Tube system has grown, and its map is having trouble keeping up. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

A familiar tradition played out in England’s capital city last week, as Transport for London (TfL) released a new version of its Tube map. The city’s public transportation agency is adding a few stops to the west of London that will ultimately compose Crossrail, or the Elizabeth Line—an entirely new rail service that will cut across all of London when it opens in 2021. For now, TfL Rail, a patchwork of soon-to-connect Crossrail segments, will begin serving cities and towns outside of London starting December 15.

As they have in the past, transport critics and map geeks assailed the new map for betraying the design principles of Harry Beck, the draftsman who brought abstraction and clarity to the increasingly tangled Tube map back in 1931. Beck’s use of straight lines and extremely loose adherence to true geography created the template for the system’s current iteration (and many others). But as the complexity of the Underground network has grown, the map has evolved with it, inspiring an an ongoing debate among Londoners who hold passionate beliefs about the Tube and what it’s supposed to look like.  

For those unfamiliar with this saga, be forewarned: Transport typography in London is serious business. TfL has an entire design guide dedicated to the style used across all of their services, and a new typeface upgrade in 2016—a re-up of the original Johnston font—was big news.

But TfL is growing, and the Tube map will have to change in rather significant ways to accommodate it. In the coming decade, the agency is poised to add the Elizabeth Line, adding 10 new stations. Crossrail 2, a proposed north-south rail line, could be under construction by the late 2020s if it finds funding and approval. Then there’s a Northern line extension and the possible Bakerloo line extension. And if London Mayor Sadiq Khan has his way, several more suburban rail lines and trams will be absorbed into TfL’s system.

All this comes after several other recent additions to the original Tube map—the London Overground, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), and the Jubilee Line Extension, amongst others. The map has made room for more intersecting lines of different shapes and colors, squeezed into fewer and fewer crevices. Some critics say that a radical visual overhaul is needed to preserve usability for visitors and commuters.

The current TfL Tube map is complex enough to baffle newcomers to the city. (Transport for London)

“Every transport system’s goal should be that you don’t need to know the city to be able to use the transport,” said Jonn Elledge, the editor of The New Statesman’s CityMetric site. “That’s no longer true for all sorts of reasons in London. It should be usable for all people, and it’s not performing that crucial function.”

Elledge is a patron saint of Tube map criticism; he often writes op-eds calling for change. He finds two major faults with the current Tube map, which he described as a “mess.” The first is the loss of certain details: Since there’s so much new information being added to the map, he explained, it leaves out geographical accuracy. For example, the new Tube map has stops that are outside of London’s fare zones, in cities like Slough and Reading. Those two towns are more than 20 miles apart in real life, but a visitor glancing at the Tube map might be forgiven for thinking that they were in the same general neighborhood.

The second major fault is the overall message, or lack thereof. “As TfL has taken over more services, it’s unclear what they’re trying to communicate,” Elledge told me. “Some trains come every 3 to 4 minutes; others come maybe every 10 to 15, like the Overground. They’re not all the same frequency trains.”

Then you have the criss-crossing lines of National Rail, which do not make it onto the main Tube map—they’re on a separate and more sprawling “Tube and Rail” map. But if a traveler knew they existed, they could be very helpful in certain situations. “Between Waterloo and Wimbledon, there’s a high-speed train that gets you there in 15 minutes. But it’s not on the map,” Elledge said. Instead, the Tube map would suggest to take a roundabout way, via central London. “You can’t see if you’re not familiar with it.”

However, TfL has made certain additions that Elledge viewed as steps in the right direction. The dotted line between stations at Camden Town and Camden Road, suggesting that riders can walk to transfer lines, makes the system more approachable, he said, and should be expanded elsewhere. One model to follow, he said, is the Night Tube map, which casts a dark blue hue to show the lines available on weekend nights. “That simplicity makes it much more legible,” he said.

Still, Elledge recommends essentially starting from scratch. “It’s really rethinking what the map is for, and what it’s trying to do,” he said.  “The agency needs to start from a blank sheet of paper.”

Transport for London is certainly no stranger to cartographic critiques. In a statement to CityLab, a spokesperson for the agency said that “we constantly keep the Tube map under review and I can assure you we are very careful to ensure that the information on the map reflects what customers need to know.” To allow for varying digital applications, TfL has also opened up all of its demand and mapping data to app developers.

Of course, with smartphone wayfinding available from Google or CityMapper, the role of a physical map from TfL itself may be diminished. But that doesn’t discount its importance, Elledge insists: “A transport map truly is a cultural item,” he said. “You can locate yourself in the city, and it’s one of the few things that we can all engage with. That’s something unique.”

This is not a rhetorical argument for me: As a relative newcomer to London, I often find myself wrestling with the Tube map to find my way around. While reporting this story, I found myself thinking a lot about the role that transport maps play in cities—what they offer us as riders, and how they change the way we interact with our transport environment.  

For one, it has something to do with motility, or our capacity to get around—as opposed to mobility, or our ability to get around. Motility is a key factor in our individual well-being on public transport, according to research; if someone feels like they lack the capacity to travel on a certain mode, it may affect their willingness to take that mode in the future. A Tube map too complicated or intimidating for someone like me to use will both hurt ridership and fundamentally limit my horizons as a London resident.  

Jug Cerovic, a Paris-based Serbian architect who designs maps for a living, is a strong believer in the importance of cartographic legibility. In an incredible side project, he’s taken it upon himself to standardize major subway maps from around the world.

“The map is the network,” Cerovic told me. Above ground—whether in a car, on a bike, or on foot—you can go in any direction you’d like, he said. But that’s not true underground. “When you go into a station, you enter into a parallel dimension … it’s a totally different concept of space and time. Without the map, you can’t use the system. It’s essential.”

And how that map appears has implications, he says. In Paris, where he grew up, he had the 1990s Métro map: “That is the way I see the system, when I think of it.” But friends of his who moved to the city in the 2000s or thereafter know a different Métro map, which, in London fashion, added new lines and services. “These people have difficulties navigating certain places, and avoid others that appear too cluttered on the map,” he said. “Because that’s the way they see the system.”

Cerovic laughed when I asked about London. “Only in New York and London do they care so much about their maps. Nowhere else do they care this much.” (He’s got a point: Last week, the New York Times recently had an interactive feature on the development of New York City’s subway map. Readers loved it.) He described London’s Tube and Rail map as “frightening”: “I don’t want to go there when I see it.”

In Cerovic’s latest version of that same map, he utilized the TfL design style throughout, but the lines are more playful and less overbearing. “If [TfL] keeps their current version, it’ll become a mess. But it’s possible to make it better,” he said. “TfL has no excuse not to make a better map.” Especially when considering more complex networks, like transit systems in Paris and Tokyo, he argued. “If you can map Tokyo, you can map anything.”

A detail of London from Cerovic’s adapted Tube map. (Courtesy Jug Cerovic)

But Cerovic doesn’t discount the massive impact technology has had. “It used to be the same map for everyone,” he said. “Now there are so many different maps.” Google Maps, in particular, has become integral to our perception of the city, and its contents. He referenced a statistic that 13 percent of all web searches are on Google Maps, and close to 80 percent of users find information about nearby businesses on it. Its universality in our lives is only growing, he added, with appointments, travel times, and other information available.

But for transportation, digital maps, “only tell you one thing—how to get there,” he said. “It shows the journey from point A to point B. But an analog map allows you to ask questions about your city. Because you might know where point A actually is.”

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