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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 1
As part of our ongoing obsession with rethinking cities, we’re bringing you a six-week bonus series on the future of mobility. It will rumble into your inbox on Mondays, while the regular edition will arrive on schedule on Wednesday. This is Week 5!
Who still needs a subway map? At a time when satellite-powered navigation apps on our phones can tell us exactly where to get on, transfer, and get off the subway, is there still a use for these old-school navigation tools?
The short answer is: yes. Subway maps aren’t just functional guides. As the most reproduced piece of cartography, they become instant icons of a metropolis, akin to the weight of a seal or a flag. The diagram depicts a city’s breadth, vitality, and local character, at-a-glance.
No wonder introducing a new subway map is often steeped in drama. Oh yeah, we’re going there.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 2
731 miles (1,177 km): Length of Beijing’s subway, currently the world’s longest and busiest metro system, serving around 10 million riders a day
217: Number of babies born in the Moscow Metro when it was used as a bomb shelter during World War II
474,280: Number of London tube maps shredded in 2017 due to one misplaced station
£0.08: Cost to print a pocket-sized London tube map
5: Number of custom fonts designed for the Paris Metro system’s maps and wayfinding signage
15: Number of colors used in Seoul’s rapid transit map, according to the Global Subway Spectrum chart
$0.99: Price of Mini Metro, a mobile app that challenges players to design an efficient rail network
$12,000: Auction price of the first New York subway map printed in 1904
$0: Cost of a New York subway map at stations, currently
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 3
A good transit map combines geographic accuracy and graphic punch—a tricky balance for designers, cartographers, and transit officials who negotiate this balance to the tiniest detail.
This tug-of-war is best dramatized by the so-called “Great Subway Map Debate” that consumed New York City in the 1970s. Things came to a head at the Cooper Union’s storied Great Hall in downtown Manhattan. On one side there was Massimo Vignelli, the revered Italian modernist, who designed New York’s minimalist system map in 1972. His elegant solution delighted connoisseurs of modern design but riled some tourists and cartographers for being reductive to the point of inaccuracy. On the other side was John Tauranac, chair of the transit agency’s subway map committee, who argued for redesigning the subway map to give riders a better orientation of the city above ground.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority eventually hired graphic designer Michael Hertz to develop a map that better depicted the city’s (and subway’s) geography.
This kerfuffle dogged Vignelli throughout his career. In 2007, he appeared in the documentary Helvetica and offered an explanation for why his graphic marvel was phased out just after seven years. “The fact is 50% of humanity is visually oriented and 50% percent are verbally-oriented. The visually oriented people have no problem reading it and any kind of map… and the verbally-oriented people just can’t read any map,” he said. “The verbally-oriented people have one great advantage: They can be heard. That’s how they changed this map; these people started to complain and opened their mouths… until a beautiful map is substituted by a junky one.”
The MTA rehired Vignelli’s firm in 2011 to design a weekend map, but the Hertz-designed version remains the standard to this day.
A year before Vignelli’s death in 2013, MIT researchers offered proof that the Italian designer may have been right all along. They used “visual mongrels”—approximations of how our brain sees images—to show that riders more quickly processed a pared-down map.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 5
“Metro lines are to a city what veins or nerves are to our bodies.”
—Rafa Sañudo, the designer of Madrid’s subway map, in the book Transit Maps of the World
“I think it’s the most beautiful spaghetti work ever done.”
—Massimo Vignelli on his minimalist solution for the 1972 New York Subway map
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 7
1863: The Metropolitan Railway opens in London, the world’s first underground rail system.
1896: Budapest’s M1 (aka “Millennium Underground”) opens; it is now the oldest electric-powered underground railway in Europe.
1933: Inspired by circuit diagrams, electrical draftsman Harry Beck comes up with a radically simplified design of the London Underground map.
1937: A push-button navigation map of Paris’s metro is featured in the International Expo of Art and Technology in Modern Life.
1940: Train buff Herman Rinke rides through all three then-independent NYC subway systems on a single five-cent token without stopping once, the day before its three systems were unified.
1968: Timed to coincide with the summer Olympics, Mexico City’s metro introduces a map with pictograms.
1978: The “Great Subway Map Debate,” pitting graphic designers Massimo Vignelli and cartographer John Tauranac, is held at Cooper Union in New York City.
1997: The Berlin metro adopts a custom font called “FF Transit.”
2016: Accessibility researchers Joshua Miele and Greg Kehret develop a groundbreaking map of San Francisco’s BART system for blind passengers.
2020: New York introduces a live subway map showing trains moving in real time, making that unexpected delay a thing of the past.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 8
Most official transit maps are copyright-protected. Whenever they appear on film, props departments often create versions altered just enough to save on licensing fees.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 9
Berlin’s U-Bahn is the backdrop for R.E.M.’s angsty 2011 song “Überlin.” Props to the motion graphics designer who used FF Transit, the system’s official font, for the video.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 10
The prospect of redesigning a subway schematic is catnip for map nerds. Conferences and forums all over the internet feature deep discussions about fine cartographic details that the casual rider might overlook. In the blog Transit Map, for instance, designers submit alternative versions of subway maps, hoping for a critique from its founder Cameron Booth.
Some redesigns, however, are born out of frustration. Amateur cartographer Jake Berman spent more than 300 hours to create a cleaner version of the New York City subway map. Undeterred by a lawsuit from the transit agency earlier this year, Berman, who is a lawyer, still sells prints of his subway map for $50.
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Quartz Obsession — Subway maps — Card 12
Cool has long been characterized by a reserved dispassion, but to be cool in 2020 often means being informed and concerned about what’s happening in the world—or, at minimum, looking like you do. The transformation may be so great that some are wondering whether coolness as we have traditionally known it could be dead.
The stakes aren’t purely academic. For decades cool has been among the most powerful elements in marketing and integral to the identities of some of the world’s most successful companies. Our new field guide explores how businesses that fail to understand it may risk their relevance, and with that, their customers.
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