This roundtable discussion about The New York Subway Map Debate, a book about the April 1978 Cooper Union debate over the design of the New York subway map (previously) and related subjects, featuring John Tauranac himself (who participated in the 1978 debate), alerted me to the fact that an audio recording of that debate is available online. (A discussion about a book about a debate: this all feels a bit recursive.) [Kenneth Field]
At Worlds Revealed, the Library of Congress’s map blog, Tim St. Onge looks at, and provides the background on, a series of six maps prepared by Frederick E. Pierce for a report on living conditions in New York’s tenement housing in 1895, including a stunningly bizarre map of ethnic groups living in the city.
Pierce’s map of nationalities, however, is a more memorable, if confounding, centerpiece. Aiming to convey diversity among immigrant communities in New York, the map depicts the proportion of major “nationalities” in each sanitary district of the city. The result is a dizzying array of zigzag stripes and scattered points. As Pierce writes in his explanatory notes accompanying the Harper’s Weekly publication, the original map was produced in color and adapted to black and white for publication, but the reproduction “is almost as effective and quite as illustrative as the original.” Despite Pierce’s confidence, perhaps the average reader could be forgiven if they find the map to be more difficult to parse. In fact, the map seems to resemble more closely the dazzle camouflage, a design aimed at confusing the observer, used on British and American warships in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is experimenting with new network maps that adopt a diagrammatic design that harkens back to Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 design, or (frankly) to designs used by most other transit systems. The new maps appear in nine subway stations side-by-side with geographically accurate maps of the MTA system, and embed QR codes so riders can submit feedback. If the maps are positively received, they could replace the MTA’s current network map—but New York being New York, and New York’s map wars being what they’ve been for the past fifty years or so, it’s anyone’s guess how this will shake out. More at Gizmodo.
Back in 1978, Massimo Vignelli and John Tauranac debated the future of New York’s subway map. That debate—which in many ways never quite ended—is now the subject of a book coming out later this month. Edited by Gary Hustwit, The New York Subway Map Debate includes a full transcript of the debate and subsequent discussion (thanks to the discovery of a lost audio recording), plus contemporary photos and new interviews. Paperback available for $40 via the link.
Geographer Christopher Winters maps car ownership—or rather the lack thereof—in The Geography of Carfree Households in the United States. In only a few census tract do more than 75 percent of the population go without owning a car. Not surprisingly, most of them are in New York, plus other densely populated cities: “New York has many more such households than any other urban area. It’s the one large place in the United States where only a minority of households have a vehicle available.”
New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has released a beta of a new digital subway map that aims to solve several problems at once. It shows train positions in real time and provides service bulletins in a single location. It also promises, says Fast Company’s Mark Wilson, to bridge the long-standing (and often acrimonious) divide between geographically accurate transit maps (Hertz) and diagrammatic network diagrams (Vignelli).
Here’s a video about how the new digital map came to be:
On Transit Maps, Cameron Booth has some criticisms of the map and its approach. “The main selling point of this map is that it has the clarity of a diagram but the fidelity of a geographical map—‘The best of both worlds!’ the articles happily proclaimed this morning—but the reality is more like ‘Jack of all trades; master of none.’ As much as I try, I simply can’t see any real benefit to this approach.”
Another point Booth makes, and I can confirm, is that the map isn’t just slow; it’s profoundly slow. On Safari it makes my current-generation, eight-core Core i7 iMac with 40 GB of RAM and a Radeon Pro 5500 XT feel like a snail; it’s a little better on Chrome, and on my third-generation iPad Air, but it’s still slow and janky and not very pleasant to use. Well, it’s a beta. But a beta that crawls on hardware faster than what most people own is, I’d gently suggest, not ready for release.
Rather than applying restrictions across their entire jurisdictions, several authorities are designating zones to target measures to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus where the spread is at its greatest. Maps can quickly indicate not only where COVID is at its worst, but also where restrictions have been put into place. Two examples: New York City (above left) and the province of Quebec (above right). New York’s map is interactive and has an address search, whereas Quebec’s map is spectacularly ungranular: diagonal lines show that a region has more strict restrictions in some areas but not others, but does not map those areas (which are indicated in text).
Last October, Alex Russell released his first pictorial map of a Brooklyn neighbourhood, the Great Map of Greenpoint. It was begun, he says, “as an effort to drive business around the neighborhood. As a restaurant owner in Greenpoint, it was to draw attention to everything this great little area had to offer.” His follow-up, the Great Map of Williamsburg (above), ran straight into the pandemic, as Greenpointers reports:
“My printer closed their doors for a few months just as my order went in,” Russell said of his map, which went to print right as the coronavirus halted New York’s spring. “Sadly, I have recently discovered that a handful of the businesses on The Great Map of Williamsburg have closed due to COVID. I will be delivering their maps to them this week as a bittersweet memory of what was. Some of them, like Brooklyn Charm, had been there for over a decade. I feel honored to have had the chance to be a part of their history.”
Both maps are available for sale as posters; Williamsburg costs $40 and Greenpoint costs $25. [News12 Brooklyn]
On a personal level, the coronavirus map I stare at the most is the one closest to home: a dashboard that shows the regional incidence of COVID-19 in Quebec. Maintained by two geographers at Laval University, it’s extremely helpful in that it shows the per capita rate as well as the raw numbers, which highlights (for example) just how many cases there are in the Eastern Townships, and how few there are here in the Outaouais, as a percentage of the population. [Le Droit]
Less helpful is New York City’s map showing the percentage of patients testing positive for COVID-19, because its neighbourhood detail is so difficult to interpret, as Patch’s Kathleen Culliton points out. “Neighborhoods are designated by numbers instead of name—408 is Jamaica, Queens, by the way—and the percentages are not connected to population data but to those tested. The number of people tested per zone? Not included. The population [per] zone? Not included.” [Kenneth Field]
It’s hard to maintain social distancing in a dense urban environment like New York, but that doesn’t mean that rural areas are inherently safer. Identifying areas that would be hit harder by the coronavirus can be a factor of age and various social vulnerability factors (such as poverty and vehicle access); John Nelson looks at the intersection of age and social vulnerability in this StoryMap and this blog post. The Washington Post’s maps of vulnerability are based on age and flu rates. A third example is Jvion’s COVID Community Vulnerability Map, which is based on anonymized health data from some 30 million Americans [ZDNet].
The New York Times maps the number of cases at the global level and for the United States. It’s also making available county-level coronavirus data assembled from various states and counties, since there seems to be no single agency tracking this at the national level.
Want to see the true potential impact of ignoring social distancing? Through a partnership with @xmodesocial, we analyzed secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during spring break. This is where they went across the US: pic.twitter.com/3A3ePn9Vin
— Tectonix (@TectonixGEO) March 25, 2020
Failing to observe social distancing makes the pandemic worse. You might have seeen Tectonix’s video on Twitter, drawn from the location data of mobile devices that were active at a single beach in Florida over spring break, and followed them home. As CTV News reports, the video has drawn fire from privacy advocates, though Tectonix asserts that the data was anonymized and collected with user consent. Meanwhile, the New York Times explores several scenarios of coronavirus spread, comparing what might happen with some control measures, more severe control measures, and no action taken at all.
Michael Hertz, whose design firm created the map of the New York City subway that in 1979 replaced a controversial (though critically acclaimed) design by Massimo Vignelli—a map that today’s map design largely follows—died earlier this month at the age of 87, the New York Times reports. See also BBC News, CNN, NBC New York, the New York Post—that’s rather a lot of attention.
That 1979 map that has been critiqued, fulminated against and re-imagined over and over again has nonetheless managed to become iconic; however much the map offended various design aesthetics, as the Times obituary (and previous coverage) shows, it was created with care and purpose: the curves were deliberate, the references to aboveground landmarks were deliberate. It was a team effort, but the Times obit had this interesting item about who should get the credit:
There has been some sniping over the years as to who deserves credit for the 1979 map, with Mr. Hertz taking exception whenever Mr. Tauranac1 was identified as “chief designer” or given some similar title.
“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz told The New York Times in 2012. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”
In 2004, the Long Island newspaper Newsday asked Tom Kelly, then the spokesman for the M.T.A., about who did what.
“The best thing I could probably tell you is to quote my sainted mother: ‘Success has many fathers,’” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s not to disparage any work that anybody else put into the map. But, in all honesty, it’s Mike Hertz that did all the basic design and implementation of it. In all fairness, the father of this map, as far as we’re concerned, is Mike Hertz.”
The 1979 map isn’t quite the same as the current version. Transit Maps posted a copy in 2015, and has this to say about it: “It’s funny how we call this the ‘same’ map as today’s version, because there’s a lot of differences, both big and small. The Beck-style tick marks for local stations as mentioned above, no Staten Island inset, the biggest legend box I’ve ever seen, the colours used for water and parkland … the list goes on!”
The New York Times does a deep dive into New York’s current subway map: its design choices, its history, its quirks. It’s more an animated slideshow than interactive map: each step takes us along a route, bouncing up and down (for example) where you’d expect to walk. It’s also completely devoid of any context, particularly the controversies around this very map’s design. People have been agitated about New York’s subway map, and have been reimagining and rethinking it, for decades.
Yes, I've seen this NY Times subway infographic piece. It's… odd. Seems to excuse bad design with some magical hand waves and expect us to believe this is really the best map that could be made.https://t.co/5xjiAK9EQz
— Transit Maps (@transitmap) December 2, 2019
That said, even a naïve look at the status quo isn’t without value, especially since the status quo is rarely looked at on its own terms, but rather in the context of tearing it up and coming up with something new and better.
John Tauranac is having second thoughts. Tauranac is the former MTA map designer whose committee replaced Massimo Vignelli’s diagrammatic subway map with a more geographical one in 1979; that map, with modifications and updates, is still in use today. He now thinks the map needs an overhaul, according to the New York Post, and at 80 he thinks he’s the one to do it. The Post article includes some of his suggestions; the MTA is, shall we say, not eager for his help.
(Tauranac has been active on this file for a while: he released his own subway map in 2008: it’s a folded map that is geographical on one side and diagrammatic on the other. It seems to be out of print, but I still have a copy in my files.)
And a perusal of my own archives will tell you that the project to reimagine and rethink the New York subway map has been going on a very long time. Last May Jun Seong Ahn posted a rethinking of the subway map—not as the usual poster, but as a wide horizontal map posted above the heads of commuters, as you commonly see in other cities:
Debates about the New York subway map generally involve posters on trains and in stations—flat, paper, static maps. Meanwhile the MTA is moving to digital displays over the next few years, which may afford train and station maps the opportunity to be as dynamic and changing as the maps on riders’ phones. So far, though, the maps are low-resolution and static.
Previously: New York Subway Maps; Tauranac’s New York Subway Map; Mark Ovenden: The French (Re-)Connection; A Talk About Designing the New York Subway Map on Dec. 7; Debating the New York Subway Map; New York Subway Line Posters; Anthony Denaro’s Map of All of NYC’s Transit; New York Subway Track Map.
Untapped Cities has photos from an exhibition of historic and antique maps of New York City at the gallery of Manhattan rare book dealer Martayan Lan. New Amsterdam to Metropolis: Historic Maps of New York City features maps of the city dating back to the 16th century. It opened last November and runs until the end of May 2019. Some (but not all) of the maps, the New York Times notes, are for sale, which is what happens when it’s a rare book dealer rather than a museum or library doing the exhibition.
An exhibition at the New York Transit Museum, Navigating New York, got a writeup in Curbed New York. “The exhibit, which has been in the works for about a year, draws heavily on the NYTM’s extensive collection of objects related to the transit system—subway maps, yes, but also cartographic tools, renderings, and other ephemera. There are also items that might be familiar even to those who aren’t transit wonks, like the New Yorker’s 2001 ‘New Yorkistan’ cover by Rick Meyerowitz and Maira Kalman.” Vignelli’s famous 1972 subway map also makes an appearance. The exhibition runs through 9 September 2019; there’s no dedicated web page for it.
A 1776 map of New York City sold at auction in New York last April for $150,000, the Daily Mail reported at the time. The map is the second edition of the more famous, and rare, 1770 map showing the work of surveyor Bernard Ratzer. It was published in England, and was apparently put to use by British officers during the American Revolution. The New York Public Library’s copy has been digitized and is available online. [WMS]
Previously: Map of Colonial New Jersey Rediscovered.