It happens to New York’s residents and tourists alike when stepping off a subway: They’re swept by crowds up the stairs to street level, find themselves deposited at a bewildering intersection, and swiftly walk in the wrong direction. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) have issued new neighborhood maps to help the navigationally challenged orient themselves before they leave a metro station.
The 468 maps replace the 68 previous versions that were posted below ground. Although they’ll be the same size as the originals (46 inches by 59 inches), the new maps will cover a smaller radius of about 12 blocks, rather than 15 to 30 blocks. “The city had been broken into segments, where you might have 10 subway stations,” says Hamish Smyth, a senior designer at New York’s Pentagram design firm, part of the PentaCityGroup team of urban planners, engineers, and cartographers that created the maps. “If your station happened to be near the edge of the map segment, you might only see a small area before the map was cut off.”
Each map now covers less ground but aims to be more helpful, with each station smack dab in the middle. “Centering the user means you can always see about 10 blocks in every direction, rather than risking being cut off like the old maps,” Smyth says. The specificity takes advantage of the DOT’s vast mapping database and advances in computer imaging over the intervening two decades. Whenever a new map is needed, a slice can be taken from the database and cleaned up by a graphic artist according to the standards set by PentaCityGroup.
The subway maps are adapted from the cartographic system PentaCityGroup designed for the DOT’s pedestrian way-finding signage, which has been installed at street-level spots, including Citi Bike kiosks. Instead of a black background, the below-ground versions have a lighter palette, to be read more easily under artificial light. And whereas the top of the surface maps point in the direction you’re facing, à la GPS, subway maps are generally oriented with north at the top, except where aligning to the street grid makes more sense. “Because you’re usually underground, it’s impossible to tell which way is north anyway,” Smyth rightfully points out. Together, the above- and below-ground maps will establish a uniform way-finding program for the city.
Straphangers can see the close-by bus and subway routes as well as civic and cultural landmarks (churches, schools, museums, etc.) and select businesses. Smyth says that businesses are identified only when they are tourist attractions or big enough to serve as navigational cues for pedestrians navigating their way. “Macy’s, being a block long, is useful for getting around,” he says. “No businesses can pay to get on the map.”
The artwork was reviewed by Massimo Vignelli, the legendary Italian-born designer who died earlier this year, and his colleague Yoshiki Waterhouse, “who still represent the gold standard for information design at the MTA,” says Michael Bierut, who led the Pentagram team and worked for Vignelli early in his career. In 1972, Vignelli created a redesign of the MTA’s subway map, which “sacrificed geographical accuracy for clarity by reinterpreting New York’s tangled labyrinth of subway lines as a neat diagram,” according to the New York Times. The MTA ditched that map in 1979, finally giving in to public outcry, but commissioned Vignelli in 2008 to design “The Weekender,” an interactive Web version of his 1972 map.
Even though they received Vignelli’s stamp of approval, these maps shouldn’t be nearly as controversial as the one he originally designed for the MTA. One measure of their success will be how widely they’re used, and the DOT is doing its best to encourage adoption by making the map artwork available to any city agency that wants it.