Subterranean Cartography, Geography, and the Usual Politics of the New York City Subway

An article in the New York Times from earlier this month offered an interesting inside look into the difficulties of designing the map of the venerable and labyrinthine New York City subway, the oldest subterranean railroad in North America. In 1972, a cartographer and designer named Massimo Vignelli was tasked with creating the first usable map of the subway system and its ever-expanding tunnels and spur routes. A few years later in 1979, a group of map-makers led by cartographer John Tuaranac revised the older Vignelli map, “with an artist’s touch but a less-than-faithful adherence to the city’s true geography.” Various geographic mistakes were made in the revision. In some places, such as on the West Side of Manhattan, Broadway Avenue is seemingly misplaced among the uniform grid of streets that crisscross the city. Other more noticeable quirks are also present, such as the supersized
outline of Manhattan compared to the real scale of the island.
The 1972 map, designed by Massimo Vignelli. John Tuaranac’s job was to revise this edition. Photo from

From a geography perspective, displaying inaccurate information on a map is an egregious offense, especially on a mass transit map that literally millions of visitors rely on each year to navigate a city. According to the article, the series of design gaffes from the past quickly turned into a blame game between cartographer Tauranac and the 1979 template designer, Michael Hertz, neither of whom were aware of the mistakes made in the subway map until just a few weeks ago. Errors made during the map-making process due to miscalculating the precise locations of surface roads and landmarks could had implications beyond the problem of lost tourists roaming the streets of Manhattan. The reputation of cartography as a profession and an art could be on the line, since people rely on the accuracy of information stored on maps, especially one so ubiquitous as the New York City subway map.It’s crucial to note that some apparent “errors,” such as the large size of Manhattan or the tunnels bent to orthographic angles, are in fact explicit design decisions made by the mapmakers for reasons of clarity. After all, the level of detailed resolution on a small map is necessarily limited to the bare-bones routes and landmarks. It’s pretty incredible to imagine the task of drawing a map of subterranean tunnels that you can’t see from street level, so perhaps the designers should be given some slack.

What do you think? If you were riding the New York subway, would you be concerned about which side of Broadway Avenue you ended up on? Could a difference in nine blocks between the apparent entrance of a station and the actual location become an issue for you?I find it interesting that it took the designers 30 years to discover the errors, and that none of the billions of riders seem to have noticed them, either. What might that say about how people actually use subway maps? Maybe they’re only looking for a stop that puts them in the general vicinity of their destination…but I know I wouldn’t want to find myself multiple blocks off target!


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