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ONE day not long ago, in a sunlit apartment on the Upper West Side, John Tauranac could be found examining a large, taped-together draft of a subway map. Then a tall, fierce-browed Italian graphic designer named Massimo Vignelli entered the picture. Even better: run it to a stop right in the northwest corner of Tompkins Square, then diagonally across the square to another stop on Avenue B.
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Tauranac, a 66-year-old New Yorker with mussed gray-black hair and gold-rimmed glasses, used to design maps for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, until he was, as he put it, ?declared redundant? in 1987.
It had separate pages for daytime and late-night service, and stops were marked with tiny box-enclosed letters that interrupted the line. It picked out parks and islands, labeled airports, and identified neighborhoods in blue type. Tauranac?s latest effort is also a potent reminder that one of the stormiest battles involving New York?s self-image involved neither development nor political leadership, but what would seem the most mundane of issues: the look of the city?s subway map. The city?s brightly colored 1948 map, for example, indicates even relatively small parks and outlines the promontories and jagged inlets of the East River waterfront in the Bronx. Vignelli had designed another map that showed the subway routes overlaid on an accurate city plan.
Vignelli?s design, showed more geographical information than any previous New York subway map. I made my own little subway map to put on my phone as an image so in times of need it is with me. It tries to show the physical contortions of the subway lines, the way they wobble, zigzag and belly inward or out as the land dictates.
Vignelli?s map arrived at stations, people started complaining about its failure to describe the city?s geography.

It was the first since the 1930?s to reproduce the street grid; it gave neighborhood names and pointed out major landmarks.
The graphic designer Michael Bierut, however, suggests that New York?s street grid was to blame. Most of the world?s subway maps are essentially diagrams: they depict subway routes as straight lines with right-angle turns, rather than curving channels tunneled through bedrock. Even the drab, oatmeal-colored map of the late 50?s preserved the boroughs? outlines and the river?s curves.
Tourists were getting off the subway at the bottom of Central Park and trying to stroll to the top, for example, expecting a 30-minute walk. Following London?s map of 1933, a classic in the field, most make use of a featureless white background, lacking any hint of the city?s geography. The assumption is that riders will know what station is near their destination, or at least figure it out.

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