Miraculous and Implausible: A Brief History of the NYC Subway Map

Creators
Allison Cloyd and Gianna Romano

Of all the miraculous and implausible parts that make up New York City, the New York City Subway system has to rank in the top ten. The subway system of New York is one of the most complicated in the world today. With four tracks per line for local and express trains its amazing that anyone can navigate the system. Therefore, creating a map to encompass all the nuances of the subway system took many years to perfect.

When they were first created, the subway lines were owned by different companies. These companies were willing to produce maps for their passengers but would only include the lines that the company owned. Any transfers from one line to another would require a second or third map depending on the root the traveler had to take. The Maps on screen that that you have seen are from the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.

Some of the earlier subway maps would be deemed comical by today’s standards. In their quest to create a readable map, cartographers would turn the city of Manhattan on its side. This would skew the cardinal directions, making North and South into East and West!

In the 1940s the subway tracks were unified by the City of New York under the operation of the City’s Board of Transportation. Despite this unification travelers would still have to look at maps created by independent companies such as the Hagstrom Company to have a complete map of the system.

It is only after the establishment of the Transit Authority in 1953 that we see the first official map of the subway, complete with all the lines. The 1958 map was a breath of fresh air for travelers showing all the routes but its geographic representation left much to be desired.

The map that succeeded the 1958 design, from the office of Massimo Vignelli, went into circulation in 1972. To say this design was not well received would be an understatement. The Vignelli map was an abstract representation of the New York City Subway system whose departure from standard iconographic conventions and out of proportion land masses aggravated New Yorkers.

The Transit Authority replaced the Vignelli map in 1979 with a more traditional map by Michael Hertz Associates. This was the first generation of the current map in use today. John Tauranac, the chair of the committee assigned to design the 1979 map, has also worked on the updated versions.

The most recent adaptation based on the 1979 map came out in 2010. The 2010 map uses new colors and has been rescaled to make it simpler. The Transit Authority was also pleased to announce in 2012 the publication of the very first late night subway map.

The road to perfecting the New York City Subway Map was full of twist and turn but this miraculous and implausible part of New York City was eventually tamed. Now if only the subway trains would arrive on time…

Bibliography and credits
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Inspiration
P. 31 “It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible.”

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