NYU Professor Studies Subway Maps, Shows They Were Evil All Along

Posted Jun 9th 2011 11:00 AMUpdated Jun 14th 2011 09:06 AM

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Dominic Sayers/Flickr Harry Beck Tube Mural

Anyone who has ever tried to explore a new city, domestic or foreign, has likely had the pleasure of gaping at a public transport map, trying desperately to untangle that knot of colored string.


As if the bewilderment wasn't bad enough, according to a new study out of New York University travelers are actually being misdirected by the schematic subway maps popular all over the world.


England's Daily Mail reports that N.Y.U. Transport Professor Zhan Guo has demonstrated how public transport riders are far more influenced by maps than they are by distance and are, therefore, spending a lot of needless time going from point A to point B through points C,D, and J.


But it wasn't always thus.


Let's go back in time for a second: It is 1933 and no one in London can figure out how to get anywhere because the sprawling, medieval city has a sprawling, incomprehensible subway system. Enter Harry Beck, who offers a very simple solution by throwing geography out the window. His tube map (yes, that one) becomes famous and nearly synonymous with London.


Other cities start to use Beck's model. Even artists imitate it. Pretty soon travelers all over the world are studying maps that have nothing to do with the landscape around them.


There are exceptions of course. Cities like San Francisco, on its peninsula, and New York, on its island, use roughly geographical maps. But Beck's model is dominant in Europe, where Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin, and Dublin jump on board, so to speak.


The problem is that these maps can have even the most experienced travelers chasing their tails. As Bill Bryson memorably pointed out in "Notes From a Small Island," a tourist in London can ride the tube from Bank Station to Mansion House, board a different train to Liverpool Street, climb aboard a different line, take it back to Mansion House and emerge blinking only to find themselves a stone's throw from where they first started.


So it's not just you.


In fact, Professor Guo found that the London Tube map was roughly two times more influential on passengers' decisions than, well, reality. This leads to what scholars describe as a higher elasticity of travel time and what the rest of us call sitting in tunnels for 15 percent more time.


The effects are even stronger on older travelers because they are more likely to care about convenience than efficiency. So roughly 30% of London's subway riders are taking the wrong routes.


For those of us without a PhD in cartography, the best prescription for this particular problem is to use new technologies. iPhone apps like HopStop or even Google Maps base their suggestions on actual geography and train times rather than graph-paper friendly maps.


Or we could just walk.

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