defending new york’s subway from british sneers

Guardian journalist Bim Adewunmi recently traveled from London to New York and slammed the subway as compared to her beloved Underground.  The blowback has been delightful.  She seemed especially angry about the information system that isn't exactly what Transport for London would do.

The city’s subway map is dense and needlessly complex. Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York’s map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. … Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child’s approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.

She's talking about branching lines.  If she were from Paris, whose elegant Métro is nearly branchless, she'd have a point.  But what a comment for someone from London!

In New York's map, the common color helps you navigate the core part of a line while the numbers or letters help you sort out the branches.  This is a very common way of making branching lines clear.  Meanwhile, in London, where transit is presumably designed by sober adults, we have this:

Northern Line map

No 4, 5, and 6 to confuse you!   No, just a beast called the Northern Line even though it's both northerly and southerly, consisting of two entirely different lines through the central city.  Is there a direct train from Waterloo to Mill Hill East?  How would I know? As Clive's Underground Guide helpfully explains:  "The pattern of service … tends to change with each new issue of the timetable."  

You see, Bim, Americans like maps and nomenclature systems that actually indicate where their train will go!   In London I'm sure you just somehow just know what the next Northern Line train might be up to.  But all that aristocratic just knowing that you Brits do is exactly why you lost your Empire!  


16 Responses to defending new york’s subway from british sneers

  1. Stephen Rees September 25, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    You can tell where a Northern Line train is going by the departures display board on every platform, which tells you not just the next train but two after that. So if you are standing on the northbound platform you will know that the next train is destined for Mill Hill via Bank, the one after it Edgware via Charing Cross, and so on. The same information will appear on the front of the train and on electronic signs inside each car.
    And the London Underground was, as I am sure you will know, developed by American financiers like Charles Tyson Yerkes – shortly after he was run out of Chicago.

  2. Jarrett September 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Stephen. Yes, like most mysteries, it’s lovely once I’m initiated. But if there were line numbers here that help people understand the structure before they get to the platform, that would help. People need to understand the network the way they understand their network of streets.

  3. Brandon September 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    I also took a look at the Underground map after seeing her article.
    My immediate thought (not knowing London, but based on New York) was “shes probably the sort of snob who has never been out to where the lines branch”.

  4. Mike Scott September 25, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    The very worst thing about the New York subway is that they identify platforms by where the train will terminate and not by what direction it’s going. If you happen to know the names and locations of all of the termini of every line then I’m sure it’s fine, but if you’re a visitor you want to know if it’s going north or south, not if it’s going to East 180 St or Flatbush Avenue. They should all be renamed to the line name and the direction the train is going, like in London.

    • Larmeto Deriaz June 14, 2019 at 1:39 am #

      In the city I live in (right-side driving), when they are trying to identify the direction of a loop line (clockwise or counterclockwise), they say the inner circle for clockwise and the outer circle for counterclockwise, which is very confusing, especially for certain people that come from left-side driving countries (where rail is also opposite)

  5. Jim September 25, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    Have you ever travelled on the Northern Line? You’re right that it’s by far the most confusing line in London, but as Stephen says there are several informative information boards on each platform, plus there is usually a platform attendant announcing details of each train and happy to answer questions, and then when you’re on the train the driver clearly as announces the destination and the branch at every stop, and then there’s the clear network maps on display in every carriage. The New York subway has none of this, so it’s nowhere near as user friendly as the worst London line.
    When I was in New York recently I was waiting, with quite a few locals, for a late night south bound train that never came to the platform we all had been led to believe it would, but did trundle in to the opposite one, leaving just in time for us all to miss it after sprinting over. There was no information on the platform to tell us what was going on, and no platform. We were all pretty pissed off, needless to say.
    The Tube isn’t perfect but come on, it’s light years ahead of the subway.

  6. Alan September 26, 2014 at 12:37 am #

    Another example of Grauniad “journalism” at its finest… Typical sloppy reporting.

  7. threestationsquare / Anon256 September 26, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    @Jim: Late night trains sometimes go to different platforms (the platform signage generally indicates this, but notices of construction-induced changes are occasionally scarce) but in London there are no late night trains at all!
    @Mike Scott: You seem to have New York and London reversed? New York platforms are all labelled “Uptown” or “Downtown” (or, further out, “Manhattan” and [other place you don’t care about unless you’re going there]). And each branch has a letter or number so you can easily work out which branches serve the station you want. London relies much more heavily on referring to services by their terminals, especially when disambiguating branches; if you’re going to Barons Court you have to know the network pretty well to know that District Line trains to Ealing Broadway and Richmond will get you there but those to Wimbledon won’t.

  8. Neil September 26, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    This is exactly what Americans do when they travel. Make loud statements about “how we do things at home” with the implicit assumption that the home way is better. There’s a bit of schadenfreude when someone does this in reverse.
    Both systems work fine. The destination boards let you know which train to take, even when the branches all share the same name.

  9. Neil September 26, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Also, reading a couple of comments:
    from Jarrett: “like most mysteries, it’s lovely once I’m initiated”
    from threestationsquare: “each branch has a letter or number so you can easily work out which branches serve the station you want”
    The core problem is initiation. With both systems. I’ve never visited NY, and now that you’ve explained the colour coding and numbers, the NY subway map makes a lot more sense. Previously, when I’ve tried to look at it, I’m overwhelmed by the number of lines that all seem to go the same place.
    I was the uninitiated with the NY subway, and it didn’t make intuitive sense to me.
    I have visited London, and made extensive use of their tube system. It never would have occurred to me that referring the branches by their terminals was an inconvenience or confusing. I am amongst the initiated.
    What it comes down to is that both of these systems are much larger and more complex than most transit systems in the world. If you’re familiar with either one, they work perfectly. If it’s foreign to you, it needs some explanation.
    There’s probably no avoiding it, since there’s no international consensus on how to organize information about mass transit. NY and London both have followings amongst wayfinding design nerds, but the fact is that which you think is better probably depends on which you were exposed to first.
    As for Jarett’s analogy to streets (“People need to understand the network the way they understand their network of streets.”)…try renting a car in France. I’m sure most tourists have the common experience of driving a few loops in a small town before parking and spending 10 minutes studying the signpost to figure out how to get where they’re going.
    Easy wayfinding is mostly a matter of experience with the local system, no matter what mode of transportation you’re using.

  10. ndw_dc September 26, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Neil wins comments on this one. “The core problem is initiation.”
    For a visitor, initiation happens when forced to use the system for the first time, 99% of the time with no help from a station attendant or friendly local. Like with all visual information, system maps need to be obvious to the un-initiated within 5 seconds of looking at it. If it fails the 5 second test, then it is not helpful for visitors – many of whom may never really become initiated at all before their visit complete.
    Prioritizing the map for regular users doesn’t make as much sense because they already know where they’re going. Actually, any system map that requires initiation doesn’t really make sense.

  11. Eric September 28, 2014 at 1:01 am #

    Both London and NYC have complicated subway maps because they have complicated systems with lots of interlining. (Along with Tokyo and DC, they are the only cities in the world that do this.) London tends to describe all related service patterns as one line. NYC tends to give them different numbers. Each is a defensible approach. Each is harder to figure out than a subway map in Moscow or Paris or Beijing, where each line has completely segregated tracks from each other line.
    I do think London should consider giving its routes numbers rather than names (or in addition to names). But this is a minor issue compared to the geographical issues that London and NYC are stuck with.

  12. hU0N September 28, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    To be honest Jarrett, I think you’ve missed the point of her criticism. Her main point is not about how (or how much) information is presented on the map, but rather about whether or not this information is useful in the broader passenger context.
    Specifically, it’s great knowing that the 4 train goes somewhere different to 5 train, and the 6 train goes somewhere else entirely. But this matters not a jot when you are standing on a Lexington Avenue platform and you can’t tell which of the last three trains to pass you was which.
    I think that’s a valid criticism. The information on the MTA map might be spot on, but as long as the only way it can be related to the real world is a numbered or lettered bullet on the front of the train that you might or might not see as the train whizzes past, then that information is quite useless and simply serves to crowd out the small amount of information on the map that might actually be useful.
    The lesson is, great maps are nothing without great signage. Perhaps this is a lesson worth noting.

  13. threestationsquare / Anon256 October 2, 2014 at 1:16 am #

    @hUON: The numbers (or letters) are posted in several obvious places on the side of every car of every train (much more clearly than destinations are marked on London Underground trains in my experience). The number/letter, direction and next stop of the train are also announced by the conductor or automated announcement right after the train opens its doors, and in the case of the numbered lines there are also automatic signs above the platforms (as in London) telling you the numbers, destinations, and ETAs of the next few trains. What else do you expect them to do?

  14. Jack Jones April 22, 2016 at 8:56 am #

    There’s only one Guardian Journalist given her opinion and it doesn’t mean every one in Britain agrees with her or that we are somehow sneering.

    Although to be honest the NYC Subway is really filthy and needs a good clean. NYC might do everything on a bigger scale but sadly this also includes dirt and rodents. I have nothing against the system, and I am sure it operates very well and meets NYC needs.

    To be honest most Subways, Undergrounds, Metros etc have one thing in common they are over crowded uncomfortable and even unpleasant, and whilst I welcome money being spent on the London Underground and the expansion of lines and new stations, however there are alternatives to the Underground.

    It’s often forgotten that London has 366 Heavy Rail Passenger Stations and is investing heavily in expanding London Overground, Thameslink, Crossrail & Crossrail 2. Fast and frequent trains are preferable to both the London Underground and New York Subway. In terms of London Overground, Transport For London are taking over further lines from train operators and it wil form a much more intergrated part of the capitals future transport plans.

    In terms of the cost of the fare in London 65% of the revenue goes on running the service and the other 35% is invested in the system by Transport for London, who are non profit making. The higher fares in London may not be to every ones liking but they have seen the system massively improved.

    London will also be commencing a 24 Hour Night Tube later this year, and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London Overground will also be operating 24 Hours at weekends, as will Crossrail when it opens in a few years.

  15. Kelly March 17, 2018 at 11:53 am #

    There’s probably no avoiding it, since there’s no international consensus on how to organize information about mass transit. NY and London both have followings amongst way finding design nerds, but the fact is that which you think is better probably depends on which you were exposed to first.