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MTA’s Live Subway Map is a modern design masterpiece

If you haven’t delved into the greatest map controversy of all time, now is your chance.

MTA’s Live Subway Map is a modern design masterpiece
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A few weeks ago, Sarah Meyer had a dream. She was riding on Amtrak when there was a problem with the train, and she was forced to get off in a New York neighborhood she didn’t recognize. Lost and confused in an unfamiliar place, it was just the sort of nightmare Meyer couldn’t shake when she woke. Meyer is the chief customer officer for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and ensuring that no rider is ever hopelessly lost is a big part of her job.

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Last year, Meyer worked with the interactive agency Work & Co to release a landmark new digital subway map for the MTA. It’s the winner of our 2021 Innovation by Design Awards for Cities.

The New York subway system is a complicated collection of tentacles, and its lines are under constant construction. The new map is built to portray real-time updates to service changes to help ensure that you never accidentally end up in the wrong place.

The MTA Live Subway Map also tacitly solves one of the biggest debates in graphic design history (which we originally detailed in October 2020). In 1972, celebrated graphic designer Massimo Vignelli simplified NYC’s snaking subway system into a clean diagram that traded geographic literality for graphic clarity. It’s a design masterpiece, and yet, it has one big shortcoming: It’s something of a lie. The locations of lines on the map don’t align with real life. So in 1979, Michael Hertz Associates created the primary map the MTA still uses today. It’s more geographically accurate, but it removes crucial information that was in the Vignelli map. Most notably, individual train lines, such as the C, D, and E, are simplified into singular trunks.

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[Image: Work & Co]
In a pro bono project for the city, Work & Co combined the best of both worlds into a digital hybrid. It’s basically the Vignelli map, but scaled to fit accurately onto the real map of NYC like the Hertz. That means it’s an easy-to-read line map that also conveys where you are in the city at any given moment, so you’re less likely to be disoriented. The map also subtly reshapes itself as you zoom in. Look closely, and you can see the trains running on the lines in real time.

“New Yorkers are a demanding bunch,” says Meyer. “That’s why I love the city. That’s why the food is so good, the art is so good, and that’s why our maps have to be really good. You might argue that, as long as you get from point a to point b, why does it matter [if you know where you are in the city]? Well it does matter to some people!” she adds. “They do want to know!”

[Image: Work & Co]
The new map has been heralded by the design community, and 100,000 riders are using it a month. Meyer admits that’s a small fraction of the 2 million people who ride the MTA subways and buses each day, but she also suggests that this isn’t a map designed for daily use—when physical signs and Google Maps can help people navigate a straightforward commute.

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“This map is really for planned service changes, and those happen at night and on weekends. Fundamentally, you’re looking at a small subset of riders,” she says. “Our map is only consulted when something is awry. I’d much rather people not have to use our map at all because it means the system is functioning as we want, and the only people using it are tourists.”

[Image: Work & Co]
Beyond routine service changes, in March, Work & Co added a vaccine finder to the map, which displays hundreds of spots around the city for getting vaccinated, along with scheduling information, and hours of operation. Now, the team is working on a few core visual refinements to the map. Those refinements include offering more variety to the map’s 45- and 90-degree angles, at which lines currently turn. These more fluid curves will allow it to be more geographically accurate.

Aside from that, Meyer hopes to add more data to the map, specifically around connections to the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, which serves suburban New York and Connecticut commuters, so riders can always spot the best local transit option when they’re lost. And finally, a few bridge locations don’t quite line up with the real-world geography the way Meyer would like. “[It’s] the famous Vignelli versus Hertz debate: There are some sacrifices you make on geographical accuracy to make customers understand this large system,” Meyer says. “Finding that balance remains important and difficult. We’re still [working on it].”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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