the metro as metaphor

Now and then, advertising seizes on the image of a classic subway map, using it to organise some other set of ideas.  From the Metro Wine Map of France:


The Metro station stands for some distinct thing that we should learn to distinguish from other things nearby — fine-grained appellations in this case.  The brightly colored subway lines are categories that we should also understand — in this case, the wine regions of France. Somehow this metaphor seems to satisfy, over and over, as a way to bring a certain je ne sais quoi to a topic. 

(Absentmindedly, I begin to sketch a radial metro network converging on a central station complex called "Plants in my garden."  A bright blue line called "Heather Family" departs from the Cassiope platform and heads outward via stations called Vaccinium (blueberries/cranberries) and Gaultheria before swerving toward a terminal loop of scenic Rhododendron stations.  A bright red line called  "Rose Family" departs from a platform called "Rosa" and heads outward via stations called Rubus (alight here for blackberries and raspberries), Fragaria (strawberries), Pyrus (pear) and Malus (apple) [those last two stations too closely spaced, really] before reaching its terminus: Prunus, the cherries, plums, apricots and peaches.)

Why does the metro line serve as  such an excellent selling or organizing metaphor?  Conjecture: it suggests speed, order, power, reliability, a larger design that gives meaning to experience, and an urban(e) sense of excitement (as opposed to the rural excitement of the "open road").

Of course, a true transit network functions only through the interdependence of its lines, like the lines of Daniel Huffman's transit-map of the Mississippi River system

  BRCH 01 Mississippi

 But the metro-as-metaphor doesn't seem to need that.  The "wine-metro" map at the top of this post is all disconnected but still seems to sing, at least to its intended crowd.

What is it about the rail transit as a metaphor?  How could we corral this metaphorical power to get some of the real thing built?

8 Responses to the metro as metaphor

  1. Danny September 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    I think most of the appeal can be traced to two factors: Simple geometry and its clear ability to represent networks.
    The style is very similar to the diagrams typically used in Graph Theory, which seem to be used the for the same reasons.

  2. Nikko P September 18, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

    Jarrett, I wanted to know what you thought of this.

  3. Danny Howard September 18, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    Living as I now do in a metropolitan region where the transportation backbone is a highway system instead of rapid transit, I applied the London Tube Map style to our local infrastructure:
    More silly than useful, but I hear that a carpool group at Google used it as a reference. 😀

  4. Eric O September 19, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    What is so evocative to me about the metro map is that it represents a linear, connecting order in a more varied and open landscape that always presents a greater variety of options. The metaphor evokes the city. We experience “stations” as the gates to places we know are related to a larger urban landscape. It is a landscape that has a granular and dynamic orders. The “lines” connect these, so every transit line is also a conceptual frame to understand the city. As a conceptual connector, what is nice about the Metro map is that it is a metaphor with “give” – not tightly deliminiting relationships (so I call it “evocative”). It is informative about spatial relationships (or, metaphorically, semantic relationships) between destinations, but you always know that those destinations are places in their own right, so it is a “loose” metaphor.
    The Mexico City Metro map, which represents each station with its own icon, is like a totem of the life of the city when you look at it. It has been implanted in my mind since my childhood as a way to understand all metro maps, to such an extent that I actually had to realize at one point in time in my life that most Metro maps do not represent stations as icons. The experience of the Mexico City Metro made me unconsciously conceive of the places of the city as having their own “sign”. Even to this day, I sometime imagine the stops on the Boston T Map as “icons”, even though no map that I know of represents the T with station icons. (I have about 7 years of experience with the Boston area T…In that whole time, I never realized the maps lacked individual station icons).
    When the icons appear together in the map in the Mexico City Metro map, you see the signs of a variegated culture. You see the city and the humans in it. Of course, it is no accident that for some Mexicans it has come to serve as a powerful metaphor for conceptions of personal/creative journeys and life experience itself, see:

  5. Clark in Vancouver September 19, 2011 at 8:48 am #

    Someone in Toronto made a map of the bikeway network in subway map style.

  6. francis September 19, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Speaking of icons, I’ve noticed this in Seattle. The line serves the airport and some ethnic neighborhoods, so there are users who might not know English that well.

  7. Nate Wessel September 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    I went with regular angles and brightly coloured lines in my map of Cincinnati’s buses purposefully to differentiate it from the typical bus map with lines that explicitly follow the topography and curves in the road.
    Metro map styles evoke a great transit system, that Cincinnati arguably doesn’t have. I wanted to communicate that the transit system is *cough* great *ahem*, so I went with a more metro style to evoke that feeling 🙂

  8. Todd Reid December 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    A fascinating artistic twist on the subway map can be found at, a musical instrument (via html5) based on real-time mta data of the NYC subway.