Although it’ll definitely mark you as a tourist, there’s something about physically opening up a map that makes you feel like an explorer. A new city, drawn in easy-to-understand lines and colors, spreads out in front of you; it’s all there, if you care to find it. Nothing evokes this feeling more effectively than a subway or metro map. With bold lines and utilitarian, even schematic designs, metro maps are meant as easily accessible entry points into a new city or destination. As such, they will become a traveler’s mental GPS, creating borders and illuminating areas unknown before.
Eventually, seemingly simple maps become icons of a city itself. Here are some of the maps that we feel do this best.
London’s underground, like many metro systems around the world, has a long and storied history. London’s history is special, though, because it came before all others. Appropriately, it was the first subway system to use the mapping style familiar to most major cities today. To illustrate, here’s the original Tube map from 1908. You’ll notice plenty of geographical features included, and colored lines that meander around the page – while more accurate to scale, it’s also a bit daunting for the first-time reader:
Jump to the 1920s, and the map has evolved a bit, clearing out topographical and physical features for the most part and condensing the suburbs, while still keeping those true-to-life wandering lines:
It wasn’t until 1932, when Harry Beck designed his map below, that the future of subway maps around the world would be codified. Beck drew the map entirely on angles that were multiples of 45 degrees. Interestingly, he still kept the River Thames as a point of reference, but transposed it at 45-degree angles. This disregard for physical characteristics like distance and position in favor of a more schematically understandable chart would change attitudes about metro maps until today.
All historic London tube maps courtesy clarksbury.com
In fact, this approach still rules the modern Underground map’s design.
We also like this map, showing the fare zones of London, if only because it adds a splash of color:
The subway holds a special place in many New Yorkers’ hearts. A symbol of the city itself, the NYC Subway is a bastion of public transportation in a country sorely lacking in that department. The first map of New York’s subway system comes from 1904, when the map below was distributed in a souvenir pamphlet for the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) system. Interestingly, we get both a semi-schematic top view and an elevation chart in this map. It’s clearly designed more for detailing the shiny new system than to actually guide passengers.
By the post-World War II years, the following map emerges, with bright lines and rich colors, seemingly celebrating what, by that time, was already a New York City icon. New York famously bucked the trend toward more simple subway maps and kept a great amount of geographic detail, at the cost of relative ease of use. Just looking at that tangle of colored lines around Wall Street could be enough to dissuade some visiting passengers from hopping on the next train. Nobody could disagree, however, – this map was beautiful.
In 1972, Italian designer Massimo Vignelli redesigned the map in line with Beck’s original concept: 45- and 90-degree angles on a plain field. Vignelli threw geographic accuracy out the window to come up with this study in abstract metro minimalism. He even had to take a few liberties to make it work, like representing Central Park as square when in reality it’s three times longer than it is wide. It was a masterpiece of navigability, as far as the subway network went – notice the Wall Street tangle has straightened out considerably. Vignelli took Beck’s ideas one step further by elegantly intertwining the colored lines like wires. Unfortunately, Vignelli’s design gave no indication of street navigation and was widely unpopular, lasting officially only 7 years.
Now, a physically more navigable map guides New Yorkers, with some aesthetic nods to the 1972 design. Central Park is still square-ish and the Downtown tangle is much easier to read than the pre-Vignelli design.
New York subway maps courtesy nycsubway.org
Korean design duo Zero per Zero have taken a crack at redesigning metro maps around the world – “We like to make the world an exciting, new, and happy place with our designs, which are concentrated on graphics,” they say. Their approach to the New York City Subway incorporates a heart as the central theme. We feel an apple would’ve been more appropriate.
Map courtesy Zero per Zero
Tokyo’s subway system is one of the most extensive in the world, second only to Moscow in daily usage, and the map shows it. If the map looks messy, it’s certainly not because of poor planning or design; rail transportation in Tokyo is a tricky business. The map below gives some indication of the system’s complexity, but really only shows about half the subway stops in town.
In order to fully understand the Tokyo metro system, you must first understand that it is run by several different companies: Tokyo Metro (東京メトロ) and Toei (都営) run underground; Japan Railways (JR) cuts through the city; and a multitude of private companies (Keio [京王], Odakyu [小田急], Tokyu [東急]) serve mostly the suburbs. Each of these systems is independent, with unique ticketing schemes and maps. The map below, published by the Tokyo Metro group, does show JR lines (in black and white), Toei lines (colored but thinner than Metro lines), and private lines (faintly colored and very thin), though it leaves out many stations on the private lines.
Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the most accurate maps of Tokyo’s rail network come from third parties, like Joho Maps, who have taken it into their own hands to amalgamate all the disparate systems into one legible picture. Although the map below is crowded around the center, it is the most complete you’ll find of the Tokyo metropolitan area. An added bonus is that it’s laid out geographically, which means that although it may be a pain to read, it can tell you whether it’s faster to take the Yamanote or Chuo line from Shinjuku to Ueno.
Map courtesy Joho Maps
Of course, Zero per Zero couldn’t resist making one of their stylized creations for Tokyo, and this one plays off of a feature vital to any map of Tokyo’s rail system: the Imperial Palace. Looking at any map of Tokyo, it’s easy to note the importance of the Imperial Family’s residence: subway lines aren’t even allowed to run under it. This was not lost on Zero per Zero, who played off of this concept to depict Tokyo as an eye, with the palace playing the part of all-seeing pupil.
Map courtesy Zero per Zero
Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) system covers the island pretty well, and, as the second oldest metro system in Southeast Asia, is well established and mapped out. The map sticks to 45-degree angles but gives some idea of the island’s geography with the faint stylized graphic in the background. Stations are placed evenly along well marked lines, giving first time users an incredibly easy view of the city.
Although many maps restrict metro lines to 45- and 90-degree angles, Stuttgart’s may be the only one that opts for only 45-degree angles. The choice leads to a map that is almost 3-dimensional, giving the impression of a city spreading out in front of the reader. This map uniquely uses icons to point out certain points of interest, like the city zoo represented by an elephant. The zig-zagging lines give almost no spacial reference, but for a tourist this map, this would serve well as a first impression.
Leaning more towards the schematic, Seoul’s metro map follows the lead of many of the world’s systems (most notably Beck’s London design) and uses one geographical feature (in this case, the Han River) as a point of reference. It’s a big, complicated network, but one could imagine being able to navigate it with this map on a first trip. Transfer stations are marked with an icon reminiscent of the Korean flag — a nice touch, we thought.
Zero per Zero’s take on Seoul takes the iconic yin-yang symbol and lays it beneath the metro map as a stylized stand-in for the Han River. Certainly not afraid of curved lines, this map still maintains the equally spaced stations and color assignments of the classic map.
Map courtesy Zero per Zero
From its inception, the Paris metro has been plagued by mapping issues. All maps of the system have traditionally laid a sloppy but detailed metro network on top of what is basically a fully functional city street map on its own. Like the New York subway map, it’s incredibly useful for locals looking to find the quickest way to the office by referencing streets along with lines, but the sheer amount of information and the inevitable crowding around the city center make it a very difficult map to read.
Finally, Paris has updated its map to an extremely simplified design, pruning off all details except for the subway lines themselves, and one point of geographical reference. It’s a much more legible map to be sure, at the expense of some usability. No longer is it possible for the commuting Parisienne to calculate whether geographically it makes sense to get off one station earlier and walk to the office, if it means avoiding a transfer.
Joho Maps once again came up with a nice solution, incorporating more geography and street features while, for the most part, keeping the schematic map’s simplicity.
Map courtesy Joho Maps
Although it’s not going to help anybody get to work, this map depicts Paris as a tourist might see it, as a network of sights interconnected by the city’s subway. Though the lack of even station names means not many will be using this map in any serious way, it serves as an effective icon for setting one’s mental GPS.
Image courtesy antoineetmanuel.com
The Moscow Metro (Московский метрополитен) is one of the world’s oldest and largest, as well as one of the most used and loved by its citizens. A massive Soviet project, it was touted as a crowning achievement not only of public transportation but of public art. Adorned with the works of many of Russia’s most beloved artists, the stations are beautiful — even decadent — and the underground passageways that serve them have become lively and warm public spaces.
Although the colorful, bold map above does a pretty good job of laying out the system in a way everybody can understand, the Moscow Metro map has been redesigned to be both simpler and more informative. Because of its top-down, centralized architecture, the system is easy enough to understand: a ring line with other lines moving through it like spokes. What’s been added in the map below is an indication of Moscow’s ring roads, in faint grey, that parse the city into discreet sections (6 of them, on this map).
Montreal makes a bold move with its metro map: a black background that’s usually a big no-no for cartographers. Because the city’s rail grid is pretty simple – only four lines running over a relatively small area – the black background works fine, and makes for a unique and creative take on public transportation.
Where other maps strive to pound out unsightly curves and kinks in their metro lines, Mexico City’s Sistema de Transporte Colectivo seems to consciously, purposefully break the mold with playful, fanciful lines that dance around the page. It works well as a fun city icon, yet doesn’t give up any navigability: stations are pretty evenly spaced and transfer points are very clear. The lack of any geographical features at all is disconcerting at first, but overall adds to the map’s ease of use.
Hong Kong’s MTR system map is a study in simplicity. It’s taken a geographically complicated region full of islands and water crossings, and represented it in clear, straight lines and bold colors. There are even easy-to-decipher icons for such important destinations as the airport and… Disneyland? It’s useful for the fresh-off-the-plane tourist, though it doesn’t give a complete picture of the region’s rail.
Joho expanded the map to show, well, more. Included in this version is the MTR network, the Shenzhen metro system, and intercity connecting lines. Interestingly, it shows the mainland China-Hong Kong border crossing with a series of red flags along the boundary.
Map courtesy Joho Maps
The bright colors and playful design of Washington DC’s metro map make it a lovable city symbol. Some icons direct tourists to important sites (Arlington Cemetery, the Smithsonian), while others direct locals to commute options (parking lots, buses, and light rail stations). Because Washington DC isn’t inside of any state, the subway has to cross state lines several times around the periphery in order to reach the suburbs.
This map of Copenhagen’s Suburban Railway is truly stunning: smooth, flowing lines and clearly marked stations stand completely alone on a white background. The shape of the rail network itself gives the map a sweeping, graceful look, and there seems to be a color scheme as well: cooler colors on the outside, warmer colors on the inside.
San Francisco Bay Area
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is a regional train system that connects San Francisco with Oakland, Berkeley, and many outlying suburbs, running both above and below ground (as well as water) to connect the region’s roughly 7.5 million residents. The map is very geographically minded; even physical features unrelated to the system’s layout – such as the Golden Gate and Alcatraz island – are drawn accurately. Freeways are also included. Surprising, then, that the train lines stand out so well, although the area around Oakland City Center could use some clarification.
And here’s the new design for the system map. Severely simplified and made to be readable at a glance, it loses geographic and automotive details (no more bridges or freeways) in favor of clarity. It seems to take its queue from Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York subway design, keeping only the geographical silhouette familiar to native San Franciscans while obscuring everything that’s not related directly to the system itself. We also see intertwined lines around Oakland City Center that increase visibility, much like what Vignelli did for New York’s downtown area.