A Schematic or a Geographic Subway Map? The Iconoclast Redux

By John Tauranac


It was 30 years ago, almost to the day, that a new subway map was brought into play. It was a quasi-geographic map, the product of a committee at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that I chaired for the bulk of its existence. The map reflected the notion that the official New York City subway map should not show the city in a void but should reflect the city it serves.

The publication of that map flew in the face of modernism. Schematic, or orthogonal, non-geographic maps had become the standard for mapping transit systems by the 1970s, a direction that the Transit Authority had begun taking in 1958.

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created in 1968, Chairman William J. Ronan wanted an even more modern look to the system than the 1958 map reflected. He wanted a clean, well illumined map as the poster boy for the subway, and he asked Massimo Vignelli of Unimark International to do the job.

In 1972, when the Vignelli map was published, the schematic map movement came into full flower in New York. This was the ultimate manifestation of “less is more” in cartographic terms. Compared with Vignelli’s schematic map, the idea of a geographic approach to mapping the subway – a map that even made an attempt at showing some of the complexity of service – was conservative, almost reactionary.

The committee started work on the map in 1976, and two years later a prototype was ready to be tested. A show called “The Good, The Bad … The Better? A New York City Subway Map Retrospective” was mounted at the Cityana Gallery that showed the history of mapping the subway and asked what direction should next be followed. The consensus was that a geographic approach was a good one.

In the same testing period, the Municipal Art Society sponsored The Great Subway Map Debate in the Great Hall of Cooper Union (see “Going Places” in The New Yorker, July 24, 1978), , with a panel of experts to discuss the pros and cons. Massimo Vignelli graciously represented his position on schematic subway maps. As the chairman of the subway map committee, design chief and standard bearer, I spoke for a new approach, a more geographic approach to mapping the subway.

The idea of two different approaches to mapping the subway, one schematic, the other geographic, was put forward by Jonathan Barnett, who was one of the panelists and a professor of urban design at City College at the time. “Why can’t we have both maps?” asked Professor Barnett. “Why can’t we have both a schematic map and a geographic map?”

The MTA wasn’t prepared for two maps, but I personally kept wondering “Why not?” and now, thanks to Pro-fessor Barnett’s suggestion of so many years ago, I have a new subway map on the market under the Tauranac Maps imprint.

One map, unlike the classic cheap bathrobe, does not fit all, so I decided to create a pair of subway maps on one sheet of paper – a schematic map on one side, a geographic map on the other – for the best of both possible worlds.


Each style, with modifications, has its own rewards. If the immediate goal of a subway map is to get you from one station to the next, then the barest-boned schematic map can ordinarily work fine. The ultimate goal of a subway map, however, is not merely to get you from one station to another – from A to B – but to get you from where you are (A) to the closest subway station (B) that will get you the subway station (C) that is convenient to your ultimate destination (D).

I am more pragmatist than aesthetician, and I know that the New York subway system is hardly the republican ideal. Not all stations, for instance, are created equal.

A station might host one subway line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The same station might have one line stopping there weekdays but not weekends, while another line might only make stops at that station weekends, ordinarily hurtling by as an express.

Unless passengers are forewarned, they might be standing on a platform waiting for a train that might not come for hours, even days.

Further, some stations have only local service, others have both local and express. Some stations allow you to transfer to trains on the same line going in the opposite direction, others do not. And, contrary to a commonly held belief, although the subway system operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not all stations are open all the time. There is no service on the Brown Line (the J, M, and Z) at Fulton Street or Broad Street on the weekends, so the Broad Street station, which only serves those lines, is completely closed. The J, M, Z platform at the Fulton Street station, which is part of a major complex, has no service either, which, in transit parlance, means that it too is closed.

The amount of information required to navigate the New York system can be daunting, and space is required to impart it, even when the information is reduced to the pithiest, most easily understood terms. That’s why a schematic map, which is not bound by the confines of geographic accuracy, is the ideal solution to showing the system in all its complexity. In my new take on subway maps, the schematic map is the workhorse.

The average subway map might simply tell you the number or letter of a line that stops at a station. A more informative map might use different styles of type – boldface v. lightface, Roman v. italic – to indicate that a line stops at a station all the time or just some of the time. The drawback is that you still have to consult a service guide to ascertain the specifics of which line does what and when.

To alert riders to the vagaries of service and to specify when a line serves a station, my map color-codes the service at each station. The color coding tells you whether a line stops at a station seven days a week, 6:30 a.m. – 12 midnight, or weekdays only, or weekends only, or rush hours only, or some variation on the theme.

The really good part is that you’re given the critical information right where you need it, right on the map itself, so you don’t have to stumble your way through a service guide.

One usually overlooked complication is that there are trains labeled “Express” that operate express for only some of their runs, while some “Local” trains might indeed be truly local on their namesake runs in Manhattan, only to operate express in another borough. A number or letter within a right-angled symbol at a station indicates that the line – whatever its designation – makes local stops in both directions from that station; a number or letter within a circle-like symbol indicates that the line operates express in at least one direction from that station.

The station designation includes the primary station name, any secondary names, and the street of operation. That way readers stand a chance of getting their bearings, even in the schematic void.

This map incorporates a “No U-Turn” symbol at stations where you may not reverse direction without exiting and re-entering the system, thus having to pay another fare. If you’ve missed your station and want to reverse direction without paying another fare, just stay on the train until you come to the first station without a “No U-Turn” symbol and change there to save money.1

But even schematic maps have their limits. With the complexity of the operation of the New York City subway and the fact that it operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day, I wound up with two schematic maps. The difference in service between night and day is the difference between night and day, so the primary map depicts daily service, 6:30 a.m. – 12 midnight. On the reverse and on a smaller scale is a Late Night map, which shows service from 12 midnight – 6:30 a.m.

Late-night service is truncated. Some lines that operate express during the day operate local, such as the A, the 2, and the 4; some lines only serve as shuttles, such as the R in Brooklyn; some do not operate at all. The D & Q operate express in Manhattan, the F in Queens, and in a fairly recent development, the 3 Line now operates express between 42nd Street-Times Square and 96th Street-Broadway, and local between 96th and 148th Streets.

Reference might be made to late-night service in service guides in other maps, but as far as I know, no other subway map includes a late-night subway map, which is a real oversight.

A service guide is arranged alpha-numerically and is written in a style that I like to describe as “plain speak.” I have tried to avoid transit talk.

As a bonus, an index of stations provides the grid coordinates so that you can find a station on the map, as well as the color-coded daily service at each station. Now these questions can be answered: Where, in The Bronx, is Zerega Avenue? The answer: grid coordinate E2. And what stops there? The 6. You don’t even have to consult the map. As far as I know, no other map of the New York City subway includes even a simple station index, let alone an index with the service at each station.

The geographic subway map takes another tack, which is to show the subway in relation to the city it serves. The geographic subway map does not depict every street in the city. Otherwise, it would grow to Brobdingnagian pro-portions and become unwieldy. The goal is to put things in perspective, so subway information is limited to the routes and station names. The bulk of the space is given over to showing streets, places of interest, parks, etc.

The streets of operation are labeled, and streets are included that are parallel to the routes of the subway so that you know you are walking in the right direction as you leave or approach a station, along with key intersecting and parallel streets. Some streets are included because, like Everest, they are there, or they loom large in the story of New York. Charlotte Street in The Bronx, the site of so many visits by politicians in the 1970s when The Bronx was burning and now a model of urban renewal, is on the map, as is Amboy Street in Brooklyn, which is included in honor of the fictional Amboy Dukes.

Places of interest include museums, major tourist attractions, every historic house open to the public that is operated by the Parks Department, colleges and universities, hospitals, and major (and many minor) parks and cemeteries. Many of the sites serve as landmarks in the true sense of the word, since they literally mark the land. And there is an index to all the institutions.

Manhattan poses the greatest problem in terms of congestion – subway lines and places of interest are all a jumble, with one on top of the other in many places. An in-set that measures 4.25 by 14.25 inches shows an enlarged image of Manhattan from the island’s southern tip at the Battery to north of 163rd Street in Washington Heights. Even at that scale, not every street can be shown, but the scale allows places of interest to be shown in their appropriate sites in relation to the subway and geography.

There is a downside to all this mapmaking business, especially when it comes to New York City. The moment that any truly detailed map comes off the press it is ordinarily already out of date, or it soon will be. My new subway map came out last November. Some hospitals have since closed, which might be only the tip of the icebergial problems. Draconian cuts might still be made by the MTA. On the bright side for riders and on the dark side for mapmakers, this spring the connection was made between the South Ferry and Whitehall Street stations.

As an old Brooklyn dodger fan, I early on learned the rallying cry “Wait ‘til next year.” In the case of mapping the city, “Wait ‘til the next printing” has to do. We mapmakers also serve who only stand and wait.

John Tauranac writes on New York’s architectural history, he teaches the subject at NYU’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies, and he is a mapmaker. His first published maps were the “Undercover Maps of Midtown and Lower Manhattan” that New York Magazine published in the early 1970s. He chaired the MTA’s subway map committee and was the design chief of the 1979 subway map that was awarded a Commendation for Design Excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Under the Tauranac imprint, he has published Manhattan Block By Block: A Street Atlas, Manhattan: 3 Maps in 1, and, of course, his newest subway map.

Since I’m by nature a loner, I always like to say that the best committee is a committee of one, but I clearly need several more sets of eyes for proofreading. A colleague very gently pointed out that I goofed at the 23rd Street-Eighth Avenue station, where you can indeed transfer from one direction to another. I’ll get it right on the next edition. []