Today’s Tube map for the London Underground is clear, obvious, and easy to use. Its semi-abstracted form has been adopted around the world to map subterranean subway tunnels. But it’s useless if you want to know how far apart the stations are at street level. Now Transport for London (TfL) has added times to the iconic map, telling you, in minutes, how long it would take to walk between stations.
The Tube map’s original creator, Henry Beck, was an early innovator in transit map design. He realize that it didn’t need to show the actual routes taken by the underground lines. It just needed to show connections. This let him reduce the sprawl to a clear diagram with all the lines at 90˚ or 45˚ to each other. But the map is famously bad as a street map. While navigating London’s surface isn’t the goal of Beck’s map, it’s useful to know how it relates to the real world. For instance, you might need to go overground if there’s a line closure. Or you might just want to know which station is closer to your destination. The distortions that make the map readable can also lead to some comical mistakes if taken literally, as Bill Bryson writes in his book on England, Notes From a Small Island.
Here’s an amusing trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck’s map–which even people from Newfoundland can understand in a moment–they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and that you have had a nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them.
If Bryson’s mark had been using the new TfL walking map, they may still have taken the roundabout way, but a careful study of the area would hint that they could switch to Monument (effectively the same station as Bank, somewhat confusingly), then walk for nine minutes down to Mansion House. It’s still not perfect, but a lot better than hopping on another train.
Perhaps the best thing about the new walking times is how they embrace the spirit of Beck’s original map, simplifying information until it becomes easy to use. And the small addition of a few numbers to the map makes it much more useful. So useful that you might not need to enter the Tube at all.