Navigating – NYC Subway

For a few years (circa 2010) I was a student at Columbia University, and a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like most New Yorkers, I rode the subway on a daily basis and became intimately familiar with the system’s many eccentricities. For the first few weeks after moving to NYC, I even carried a small book in my back pocket with a miniaturized map of the subway system. I had always liked the map (there is something greatly satisfying about its ability to clarify what is perhaps the most chaotic transportation system on the planet), but it wasn’t until our recent lecture about Massimo Vignelli that I began to think about this map as a designed object.

Vignelli’s original design

Originally, I had looked at the map as something merely functional without considering that it is the design which makes it functional. The layout is not geographically correct, but that is part of its beauty. The geography is not entirely important. Riding the subway is itself an almost abstract experience, much like riding an elevator. You get in, the doors close, and when they open at your destination, you get out. The space in-between is of little relevance to your journey, so by bending the geography, the design of the map can focus on clarifying the lines of transit, even color-coding them to make it easier for riders to follow the jumble of lines.

The NYC Subway map is also unique in that it is the only major subway map that that gives relevant above-ground information such as parks, major attractions, and select streets and avenues. This is very helpful because if you are in, say, Central Park West but are meeting some friends in Dumbo, you can easily look at the map and find which line you should take without having to know the corresponding stations.

The only issue I have ever had with this map is that it’s not entirely intuitive that some of the trains are “express” trains that do not stop at every station (these express stops are marked with white dots). When I first moved to NY, I admit that I had on more than one occasion taken an express train inadvertently, gone past my stop, and then had to backtrack.

On the whole, I find the map in its iterations since Vignelli’s design to be not only massively helpful, but also quite aesthetically pleasing. If only I could say the same for the subway itself…