Change the damn New York subway map please!

I love NY. We just came home from our NYC vacation, and it brought back the memories of so many trips there, and how each trip was great. When the girls are off to college we are hoping to move to NY and enjoy life with great restaurants, top notch culture, and enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the city.

But while I’ve been to NYC many times, I’ve only ridden on the subway twice. Both times I was riding with a native New Yorker. Now I am not a neophyte suburbanite who is afraid of crime or grunginess and think the subway is scary. In thinking through the reason for this, I think I’m just one of many visitors who just can’t get past the monster that is the MTA subway map.

MTA subway mapf

I’m generally not afraid of complexity, and is considered sufficiently intelligent, but I’ve never been able to decipher this thing. Why all the crazy curves? What are the differences between black and white dots on stations? Where do I transfer from one line to another? And for god sake, why are some lines enclosed in circles and some in squares, and what’s up with the crazy numbering/naming?

Before this recent trip, I resolved to understand this system map by reading all about it on the web and in guidebooks, and thought, OK, I think I finally got it. I’ll try to use the subway as the main transportation option when I get there. Every evening before I hit the sack, I took out the guidebook and map, and try to figure out what is the subway ride that we need to take for the next day’s itinerary. Yet after about half an hour of head scratching and deciphering, I got sufficiently confused that I thought better of it, that the last thing I need on vacation are the wife/kids waiting impatiently as they wait for me to figure the crazy system out. We ended up walking all over midtown, from our 38th and Park home base to Columbus Circle and Central Park a few times. When we needed to get to lower Manhattan, we just took a few $10 cab rides.

The problem is once again the map. It’s just too difficult to understand. Upon reflecting what happened (again), I googled and found this great post on CartoBlog, a cartography web site. It explains why the NY subway map is the way it is: The system being a mash-up of three competing subway companies, with non-rationalized routes; the narrowness of Manhattan as compared to London’s radial subway layout; the way people expects the subway map to be realistic to the above ground street grid, etc. The post also talks about the various attempts to update the map for usability, and how each attempt failed for various reasons.

But what really caught my eyes were the most recent attempt, the Kick Map. It seems to have addressed most of the issues cited while rationalizing the system as a whole. Check out the comparison from the old map (left) to the Kick version (right) for Lower Manhattan:

Kick Lower Manhattan

Notice how the map is actually readable now? No more overloading of train lines into one graphical line. The curve of the routes are now easy to follow, and more importantly, ignored. I mean who really need to know exactly how the tunnel is curving underground, as long as the stations are placed correctly? And as a final blow, notice how the Fulton-Broadway-Nassau situation was before (incomprehensible), compared to how clear the Kick map illustrates it.

Yes, maybe the multiple route lines are a bit dominating, to the detriment of the above ground information, but that’s the only down side I can see. As a visitor, my first order of business is to determine which route will get me from point A to point B, and determine the 1-2 stations that’s closest to the end points. Getting to and from the station to the final destination I can do by asking for directions above ground, or consulting a street map. The Kick map accomplishes its goal of explaining the subway system effectively, while the official MTA map requires me to spend a semester to learn the symbology and meaning that it stops me cold before I start. I think that even for a native New Yorker, the Kick map will be useful too. I’m sure that most New Yorkers already know their daily commute trips by heart (probably learned the route thru trial and error), so they don’t need no stinking map. But when they use the subway to a new spot, the Kick map has got to be easier to read at the station or in the train.

Alas, the wise crowd at the MTA apparently rejected the Kick Map last year. But I gathered that the Kick Design guys are licensing it to Gray Line, so you may want to go there and pick up a few copies when you are in town.


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