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

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



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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I thought this story was going to be about the evils of Subway sandwich shops. lol

June 09 2011 at 3:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I rode the New York City subways for years. Navigating on the subway isn't that difficult. Steering clear of the pickpockets, beggars, drugged up individuals, waiting for trains that come late (or never show up), however, is the biggest problem with the New York City subways.

June 09 2011 at 12:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to frankieboy26's comment

I rode it too and the schema was entirely simple and different than Europe. But now with the new lines and new names, I don't think I could find my way in NYC as easily. Where is the 'A' train today. Does anyone even remember it and the Duke.

June 09 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

And NYU students are paying how much tuition to fund moronic studies like this?

June 09 2011 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

We were in London in the 70's for a brief stay, and had no problem with the tube system. In fact, we enjoyed using it.

June 09 2011 at 12:22 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

What a boring story!

June 09 2011 at 12:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I used those maps, in 80s and 90s a month at a time, and had no real geographic sense of the of London. The east London, large bight and the other side, were all mysteries to me, so the maps were my only source of information. He is right, the distance between lines is often small as the lines twist and turn underground coming close to other lines and then distancing as they cut around below. Who knew. The fear of having to walk miles from a close station after finding out the station is not where I thought it was forced me to take the role of the wandering aramean through the city. Still it was worth it.

June 09 2011 at 12:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm guessing it really depends on the city as to how difficult the subways system is to navigate. I live in NY and find it fairly simple. I would have to view maps of the older systems in Europe, but I can imagine that some of them are quite chaotic.

June 09 2011 at 12:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't get it. What's so complicated about a subway map?

June 09 2011 at 11:48 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scottilla's comment

The maps were basically straight lines with curves at some point in return, next to another straight lines of another line looking just like the first. As in any ciyt, streets run as they did for centuries, so the same station name may appear on several lines, but the lines take major curves and changes of direction which the maps don't show, crossing the same streets, but miles ap;art.. Natives might know, tourists don't know the difference in distance and have to go back, change lines and try again.

June 09 2011 at 12:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply