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24.08.2013
A proposed subway line on Utica Avenue (above, in green) could connect with 4 train service.
Via Andrew LynchThe growth of Queens Boulevard "has put a strain on not just one subway line but all four East River tunnels headed into midtown," writes Lynch. In college I majored in design, and I spent half a year studying at the University of London.
In fact, I formed such a warm attachment to that valuable tool that at the end of my stay, just before I left the city, I went to my local Underground station and got a brand new Tube map, and when I returned home to New York I had it framed. When you come back to your own city after six months away, you look at everything with new eyes. I remember thinking that the New York subway map was the opposite of the Beck map: huge in size, unruly in look, cluttered, and very nonintuitive. Even as a designer, however, if I ever thought of creating my own subway map I must have quickly dismissed the idea.
Now, fast-forward to one night years later when I was taking an out-of-town client to dinner at a downtown restaurant. When I decided to try making a new map as a weekend project (ha!), the first thing I considered was the size. First, I took a paper version of the official Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) map (a version of which is shown in Figure 5-3), cut it up with scissors, and put it back together in a more efficient way (literally with Scotch tape), just to see the possibilities. It was one thing to reduce the size, but another thing to realize that the way the data was presented was not the best way to present it. What was it about New York City and its subway that historically made it so difficult to map clearly and efficiently?
Of course, in addition to the map designed by George Salomon that had been my father’s subway map, I studied carefully the map designed by Massimo Vignelli (see Figure 5-4), which the MTA used from 1972 until 1979, when it was replaced by the Tauranac-Hertz MTA map (which, 30 years later, still prevails). As I conducted my research, I started to realize that New York City had its own unique set of challenges that made its subway system impossible to accurately and clearly map using just a diagrammatic method, as other cities like London, Paris, and Tokyo had done. The narrow geography of the principal thoroughfare, Manhattan Island, which has 17 separate subway lines running up and down Midtown alone in a width of six city blocks. The unique system of many of the subway lines running local, then express, then local again along their routes. Its formative history, with the current system evolving from three separate and competing subway systems (the IRT, BMT, and IND) that were poorly coordinated to work as a whole system. The KickMap, shown in Figure 5-5, is based on a combination of ideas I selectively borrowed from many earlier maps (some dating back to the 19th century) and my own innovations.
One of the issues I have with some previous versions of the New York subway map is that I have a hard time believing that the designers ever actually rode the subway as an integral part of their lives in the city. On the Vignelli map, this portion of the L is depicted as a straight line (see Figure 5-6[a]). Conversely, I sometimes made stylistic simplifications to the geography in order to help riders. While I felt that it was important to show certain shapes aboveground, I also felt that it was important to leave out certain pieces of belowground information. The belowground geography is important, but it’s more vital for the users to understand which belowground lines will take them where they want to go. In 1967, the MTA moved past the tricolor theme used on the Salomon and earlier maps and began to use individual colors to illustrate individual lines.
The Tauranac-Hertz (current MTA) map attempted to simplify things by collapsing multiple subway lines onto one graphic line, but this actually made understanding the subway system more complicated, as now you had to read the text next to each and every station to learn whether a specific line stopped there or not; see Figure 5-10(c).
I believe that taken together, these decisions highlight the innovations that make the KickMap more useable than those that came before it. So, after creating my first comprehensive map that met my initial challenges (Figure 5-5), I decided to refine it and incorporate all of my learning. The street grid — I wanted to present the structure of the streets without interfering with the subway info wherever I could.
Beaches — I thought green spaces were important, and that New Yorkers should be able to find their way to beaches by subway rather than by car.
Bridges and tunnels — One of my goals for this project was to come up with a tool that would encourage people to take the subway instead of a car.
For the same humanistic reason, I included certain celebrated landmarks — the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The current MTA subway map includes some neighborhood names, but they are just dark blue words that compete with the station names and do little to describe the areas.
I believe that separating functions is an important key to any useful visualization or tool. Another benefit of the layered approach was that it allowed me to custom-tailor the map to the user interface later. Also, I do love the simple and elegant aesthetic of Beck’s Underground map, and keeping the night map’s form simple pays homage to it! Ultimately, I do think the KickMap accomplished most of my goals: to make the subway lines and their connections as clear as possible for easier navigation, and to provide users with a clear representation of where they are once they exit a station so that the subway feels familiar and welcoming to all.
All of the choices I made were aimed at trying to make the user experience as seamless and pleasant as possible. I’d be interested to know what New Yorkers think of this design, the issue of MTA rejection and how successful the mobile apps are as an indicator value. I have been a fan of the KickMap for years and I really enjoyed and appreciate this article.
One thought I have had is that as display technology improves, we should eventually be able to post system maps at the stations that reflect the appropriate services based on time-of-day, maybe with dashed lines indicating pending service changes. Alex– the Roman city of London covered only a small amount of area compared to the medieval London which was built over it and has burned down and been rebuilt at least once. Have you made an updated map to include the recent changes (removal of the V & W, change of the M route)? But the web site for KickMap doesn’t even allow for contacting the vendor to ask about availability of such. So you deliberately chose to f*ck every person who doesn’t choose to own an Apple product?
The KickMap is much, much nicer, even than the current MTA map (which was recently revised).
I, too, appreciated the discussion here, especially regarding the distinct differences between the NYC subway and the London Tube.
The NYC maps shown here are all basically geographically based with some changes made for clarity or simplicity. I ask because if this is not being released under a CC license in vector form it is just a resume piece and not a serious attempt to replace the current map of the subway system.
Every New Yorker I know wrestles with trying to remember where the stairs are at this station or the other–should I walk to the front of the train to get out at West 4th?
I think if you do update it, you should include the names of more streets than only those that run along subway lines.
In Astoria, you see 31st St., but there is no indication of which way the streets run and that there are avenues that run perpendicular to them. It is possible to deduce certain geographical conventions by looking at the other lines, but it takes some effort and deductive power.


Maps such as these should not be confused with geographical maps, it is not what they are for. If people had a clear subway map and a real map to hand no one would ever get lost in New York again.
At the moment there's no word on how de Blasio can pay for the new project (may we suggest congestion fares?).
For a solution to this problem in a relatively transit-starved part of the city, he turns to an idea from the 1950s: a Queens Superexpress line that connects the far eastern parts of the outer borough with Manhattan.
Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground makes a complex system appear simple and elegant. I went anywhere and everywhere with ease and got the most that I could out of that great city. I realized that this map was in many ways a barrier to using our great subway system — the opposite of the Tube map, whose simplicity was a key to understanding and using the Underground.
As we waited for the train, he confided to me that New York’s subway intimidated him. I had my own design agency and my own staff, each of us with our own computer loaded with a copy of the greatest and most elegant graphic design tool available.
Since the New York City subway system has about twice as many stations as London’s, I decided to give myself twice as much space as the Tube map takes. I studied subway maps, New York City street maps, and transit maps from all over the world that I had collected on my travels. Because New York City’s subway generally follows its gridded street routes, there is a strong psychological link between the subway and the aboveground topography that is not found in a medieval city like London. I believe that this unique combination makes my map easier to use than most of the preceding efforts.
This makes the aboveground geography not only an intuitive starting point, but also an integral part of the user’s experience. There’s a disconnect between many of the decisions they made and the reality of the subway. The Hertz map (Figure 5-6[c]) shows both Metropolitan and Bushwick Avenues, but the line resembles nothing so much as a wet noodle as it half-heartedly depicts the route. A portion of the L line in Brooklyn as depicted by (a) the Vignelli map, (b) the KickMap, and (c) the Tauranac-Hertz map.
For example, Queens Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in Queens, was originally five different farm roads, and as a result it jigs and jogs a bit as it makes its way from the Queensboro Bridge east across the borough. The trade-off along Queens Boulevard as depicted by (a) the Vignelli map, (b) the KickMap, and (c) the current MTA map. A would-be rider walking along in Midtown or Murray Hill needs to know which street to go to for a subway entrance. There are several places where the subway tunnels cross and overlap each other beneath the surface.
I tried to reduce that noise by cleanly separating the lines on the map so they don’t overlap. I reused the spectral colors on the trunk lines, highlighting an elegance and reality inherent in the system that Tauranac-Hertz understood, but kept it clear by representing each route with its own graphic line. The crucial idea here was that the map should be quickly scannable, rather than just readable.
I highlighted these locations by placing a small red square next to the station name, indicating to riders who need to turn around which stations to avoid if they don’t want to have to leave the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station on the opposite side. I did the same thing with my map: I created a version (shown in Figure 5-11) into which I put every feature that I might possibly want. My version of a test mule for the map: I put lots of information in and then edited it down. You’ll notice that the mule map includes a lot more streets and street names than the final design. My mule map included municipal swimming pools as well, but ultimately I decided to remove them.
For this reason, I decided to leave out all the car bridges and tunnels (except for the iconic Brooklyn Bridge).
This is an important aspect of New York: it is a city made up of neighborhoods, and native New Yorkers think of the city in those terms. This allowed me to turn the neighborhoods on and off to determine what really needed to be there and to make several variations of the subway map with and without them.
The big maps that hang in the stations, for instance, should show you the neighborhoods, but the one in the subway car that riders reference to make quick decisions, like whether to get off at the next station, need not. Clearly I’m striking a chord, as over 250,000 people (and counting) have now downloaded copies of the KickMap from iTunes.
I wanted to put the Empire State Building in there, but it would have cluttered up Midtown, and my goal all along was that it really had to be a simple and functional subway map! Modern London is hugely larger than than either, with the the tube extending to its fringes.
Can’t imagine the MTA powers-that-be would be willing even to consider such a radical change, but 1s and 3s and Ns and Rs do nothing to help identify where the lines actually GO to someone unfamiliar with the system.
I agree with most of the tradeoffs you made, and absolutely love the neighborhoods (the real reason I bought it). I often use the current map while riding the subway to orient myself and find things other than trains and stations.
I think it is very difficult to say with any degree of certainty about the success or failure of a map – either London or New York – as they are more often than not confused in the users mind which doesn’t help the eye. Based on the same logic as schematic maps used by electricians they are about giving the necessary information only, and are not supposed to be about place’, but about connections. The hybrid subway maps are still far too big – and not geographically accurate enough for a lot of people. But in honor of hizzoner's bold move, we've compiled a short list of subway lines we'd love to see in New York, drawing largely from the phenomenal future-transit maps by Andrew Lynch (aka Vanshnookenraggen). The project itself has been around the block; it's been hyped in the headlines as far back as 1910. The Triboro RX doesn't seem to be on de Blasio's radar, but by connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn it would accomplish his stated mission of transit equity for the outer boroughs. This part of the city is booming, but the 1, 2, and 3 lines that reach the Upper West Side via Broadway are already jam-packed, and below midtown they aren't easy to reach from 10th anyway.
Even after the first phase is built, from 57th to 96th streets, there are three other phases needed to bring the trains north to 125th Street and south into Lower Manhattan.
The good news, he reports, is that the East River tunnel at 63rd street was originally built to hold such a line but the money ran out first. The KickMap is the result of my quest to design a more effective subway map, and ultimately to encourage increased ridership. There’s no numbered grid to provide a frame of reference (like in New York), and moving through the city can be a disorienting experience.
The Tube map imparted information so quickly and clearly that it became an indispensable tool and an integral part of my experience. The amount of discipline and mechanical time it would have required for anyone but an experienced draftsman to undertake such an endeavor was unthinkable in that precomputer era.


I was surprised: the crime and grime of the 1970s-1990s were virtually gone from the system, and I was proud of our shiny new air-conditioned cars and clean stations. I realized that now, just one person using a graphic design program like Adobe Illustrator had the power to create his own subway map! I filtered through all the design approaches and eclectically took as much as I could from ideas that had already been implemented (some brilliantly). There were also some smart aspects of the current MTA map that I wanted to keep, despite finding it on the whole unwieldy because there is so much information crammed onto it. In the following sections, I’ll discuss my inspirations and innovations in more detail.
As part of my design process, I rode the lines and exited the stations at every major intersection with which I was unfamiliar. But when you get out at the Graham Avenue station, for instance, it’s obvious that Metropolitan Avenue and Bushwick Avenue are two major thoroughfares that intersect each other at a right angle.
I chose to carefully draw a stylized but accurate line describing the path as it runs along each major avenue there, believing this to be the best approach because it is the most helpful to riders (Figure 5-6[b]). Recent maps didn’t capture its relationship to the subway because they either ignored it entirely (as in the Vignelli map, shown in Figure 5-7[a]) or obscured it (as in the current MTA map, shown in Figure 5-7[c]). The Vignelli map obscures the shift by treating it as a straight line, relying on text to convey the road switch, and once again the current MTA map is at best vague and noodley. It essentially had 26 lines assigned 26 random colors, which didn’t really tell the user anything beyond illustrating the continuity of a given route. At each station where a line stops, I placed the name of that line inside a dot: this way, users can easily see exactly which trains stop at which stations without having to read a list of lines next to each station name. But I also wanted to make something any map geek or lover of New York City (like me!) could appreciate. Stylization is fine, but my goal was to take the stylization and make it work so that riders can always understand what’s going on aboveground.
I wanted to keep the experience of navigating the subway as clean and easy as possible, without the temptation of using a car, to encourage users to keep riding. Years later, when I was doing research for the creation of the KickMap, I got to appreciate the beauty of the design of this map.
So your point is what, that you know medieval London had completely different roads than Roman Londinium, that modern London is like Medieval London? True that anything visual that is this high-profile is sure to attract too many cooks into the kitchen. Have you ever heard of an electrician wiring up the wrong socket or junction box in the wrong room because his diagram didn’t give him a sense of where he was? It takes 10 mins to go to Google maps and print out a small extract that serves this purpose. Joseph Raskin, who wrote a book about unbuilt subway lines, told the Times that Utica has always seemed like "one of the lines that should have been built all along." Lynch's proposal of having the trains run along the roofs of commercial buildings in the corridor seems highly unlikely, but the prospect of capturing funding via real estate development along Utica is a promising one. Preliminary ridership estimates suggest it could carry upwards of 76,000 a day, with much of the right-of-way already secured.
Lynch sees the 10th line as a possible extension of the L train; in some renderings, he even has it crossing Central Park at 86th Street to connect with the Upper East Side. I saw a gray New York with red, green, and black lines running all over it like a grid (see Figure 5-1), and hundreds of station names attached (1). That map (which of course is the acclaimed Beck map seen in Figure 5-2) was brilliantly friendly: simple, bright, functionally colorful, designed to help users easily understand connections between lines, and physically tiny. The genius of the Beck map is that it makes order out of this random complexity, with the River Thames as the only visual (and geographic) point of reference to the aboveground world.
If I needed the map’s information to get to a new location, I would tear out the relevant six-inch square portion from a free map in the station and throw the rest of it in the trash!
But in our conversation on the way downtown, I realized that his fear lay in not being able to decipher the complexity of the system: all the lines and connections. In addition, I borrowed liberally from other past efforts that had been discarded or forgotten. This is why the numerous geographical errors that appear in New York City subway maps (like the Vignelli map infamously placing the 50th Street and Broadway stop west of 8th Avenue instead of east) are so glaring and easy to spot. My stylized approach uses logic to better convey the subway’s relationship to the streets of Queens, which is not clearly apparent on either the Vignelli map or the current MTA map.
These colors are memorable and help riders discern which lines will take them in the general direction they want to go. I also decided to consistently place station names on the horizontal for easier reading, like on the London Tube map, instead of cramming them in at arbitrary angles. Instead of relying on a text-heavy, hard-to-read chart at the bottom of a one-size-fits-all map to determine when a certain route is available, a night map should be available to riders (not only on their iPhones, but also in the subway cars). I want people to be comfortable and even happy when using our unbeatable 24-hour subway system. I have never had any problem reading our current subway map, and with the addition of line maps on nearly every train now, even tourists seem pretty comfortable. Your use of similar hues for the trunk lines is what I think adds the most to the readability of your map vs. Folded, it fit easily into my pocket, to be whipped out at a second’s notice for immediate reference (which I did often!). I often saw tourists struggling with the physical map and felt bad for them, remembering my great experience as a student in London. I entered all the station names and lines into an Illustrator document, and in two months, voilá! If you didn’t know how the streets intersected and you just saw a sign for one or the other as you came out of the subway, it would be very difficult to figure out what was going on.
Still, I feel that when developing good cross-platform apps becomes easier this won’t be such an issue. Ultimately, that benefits not only the system itself, but also all of us who live, work, visit, and breathe here. People get some aspects of a working map right, but it’s hard to create an elegant solution. I would like a well-designed NYC Subway map app on my phone even if it’s not an iPhone. I folded it and easily put it in my wallet, and I carried it around and showed it to all my friends.
The Kickmap makes a compelling case for itself as a well-designed and well-thought-out map. They liked its size, but of course nobody wanted to actually use it, because it still had many of the major design issues that made the MTA map difficult to use.



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