Never are colored lines and circles more important to so many people than on our nation’s most traveled urban tracks. The maps and schematics that depict the world of subways and metro rail define them — in part.
To understand the culture of a transit system and the city as a whole, you need look no further than the maps. Urban rail maps come in two basic flavors: geographical maps and schematics (also known as diagrams). But this flavor comes swirled too. A geographical map is much more than train routes — it is also the bends of the lines and the landmarks in the city. Most designers go a different route with the schematic approach, a geometric design of routes laid over a generic sketch of the city’s most well-known features.
The pros and cons of geographic versus schematic are clear. In a geographic map, the stations are put into a proper context with the city and its landscape. The distance between the stations, the actual directions and the cross streets all have their rightful place, helping the traveler easily correlate life on the rails to life on the streets. But it can also become tricky to deal with large spaces, tight turns and areas with a high concentration of stops versus areas with greatly spread out stops.
The schematic takes that out of the equation by not binding the designer to the rules of distance. Schematics become a rough sketch of distance and space, more a guideline for directions. This can lead to some misguided conclusions about where stops are in relation to outside attractions and leave people wondering just how far apart stations are from each other.
The debate rages on, with every map and schematic designer trying to take bits of what they like from each school of thought and create their own hybrid … if they can.
Whether map (New York) or schematic (basically everyone else), one thing is certain: Each city defines its character differently, holding different aspects of its transit map/diagram/schematic in esteem. For New York, it is the ability to display a massive amount of information in a geographic model. San Franscisco’s BART system schematic puts you inconstant relation to the water. Washington, D.C.’s, Metro schematic — which has stood the test of time better than any American transit diagram could dream of doing — lets you in on a little history along the way. Boston’s design links rail to buses. And Chicago’s approach puts details in the downtown.
John Tauranac is part legend and part pot-stirrer. While Tauranac isn’t a map designer by trade, he fell into helping create New York’s 1979 geographical map through “more serendipity than anything.”
His devoted passion to mapping the underground passageways of New York in the 1970s coupled with his love of history. While working with a graphic designer, Tauranac started mapping New York’s underground for New York Magazine. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) called on him to guide a cultural bus loop. Soon Tauranac was talking with MTA officials about putting points of interest on the subway map.
The then-used Massimo Vignelli schematic design riled Tauranac. “I rejected the idea of including the schematic map (with landmarks) because I hated it,” he says with no hesitation from his office in New York. “It meant distorting the geography to the nth degree.”
Tauranac teamed with map designer Michael Hertz and they created a map for a 1976 travel guide. Soon a new MTA commission was formed to design an entirely new subway map. Tauranac successfully led the charge to go both with a color-coded system and change to a geographic approach. “Some thought schematic was modern and others thought geographic puts the subway in perspective within the city it serves,” Tauranac says.
Tauranac and Hertz gave New York something it is still the only major urban rail line in the United States to have: a geographic transit map. “I tried to put things in perspective,” Tauranac says. “That’s the point. Take people by the hand and guide them through the system. I am by nature a tour guide, so when you combine those elements with someone who likes to design maps, you have a fairly good combination.”