New York’s subway map: mythic presence of the city in everyday life

The subway map of New York is the prototypical image of the city. It is a mythical image, often confused with the thing it’s image is supposed to represent. The fact that the map is confused with the city naturalizes important tensions and relations of power that are idiosyncratic to its design.

The map was designed as a visual interface to help users navigate the city’s subway system. It was commissioned by the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), an organization that maintains many more transportation networks. But because the map is designed for the subway system, the crisscrossing of other networks like the Long Island Railroad or the bus network do not show up. Instead, the map refers to these networks through logos found in some stations. In this sense, the map is a hypertext constantly referring to other maps (Figure 1 right).

Figure 1: MTA map in the entrance of a station is an interface of the whole system

The MTA map is also a software, establishing symbolic relationships between elements through the use of visual metaphors. The particular metaphor being used is that of the circulatory system, where arteries (subway lines) are vessels that move cells (subway cars) from one part of the organism to another. This metaphor condenses a large part of the subway’s signage system and turns the map into a Rosetta stone used to interpret the signage. In this sense the map’s language is foundational: it gives meaning to visual variables that are materialized beyond the map, in the form of signals (like labels, colors and fonts), putting them in relation to each other in an inclusive whole.

The ubiquitous presence of the MTA subway map across this transportation network reinforces the map’s mythical character. The fact that the map is copied across spaces like cars and platforms gives the user the idea of moving through a continuous experience, even when the experience of getting into and out of a cars can be fragmentary in nature. The user is also comforted by the fact that, even when the ads found in subway cars change, the map remains the same.

Since subway usage is part of many people’s everyday life, the ubiquity of the map in the subway system turns it into a frame for our experiences of the city. When we go down into a station we are assured by the map’s presence. The map seems to be telling us that, despite the fragmentary nature of the experiences above ground, the city remains the same. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Map in two different spaces (car and platform) give sense of continuity

Like any map, the subway map of New York misrepresents its object for the sake of clarity and practicality. One of the uses of the map, for example, is to get to subway stations as a pedestrian. This is one of the reasons why the subway system is superimposed over the street grid. However, since the map is also largely used for tracing one’s route along the subway system, there emerges a tension between the two systems—the grid and the subway. The map has given preference to the underground: the tension is resolved by skewing walking distance at street level. The relation between street and map is useful when we want to locate stations while being above street level. It is less useful, however, for determining how to get from the stations to a point in the street

The MTA map makes Manhattan the central node in the network, albeit inconspicuously. The island appears larger than usual because it is where most of the lines meet.

This representation of Manhattan excludes certain groups and gives powers to others. New York depends on the commuters, people that move into Manhattan to work during the day and come back to their borough or city at night. Yet outer boroughs like the Bronx, Brooklyn and specially Staten Island appear smaller on the map. The importance of Manhattan makes commuters feel like they are going towards somewhere important when going to Manhattan distancing themselves from this place of power on their way out.

Even though a large number of commuters come seeking dvd copying, this territory is it is not included on the map. This makes New Jersey invisible in the cognitive map of New Yorkers. By reducing their visibility, they are excluded form the city’s everyday life.

Figure 3 MTA map looses detail when shrunk to a palm-sized image.

No matter how engrained the image of the MTA map is, new ways of consulting it expose the idiosyncratic nature of its design. When we consult it through an Iphone, for example, we find that the map is too big—details are lost and we can’t make sense of the whole map. (Figure 3) This makes the user aware of the fact that the map was designed for large format. Consulting the map was supposed to be something that was done in the entrance to the station (Figure 1). The map acted like a mural, in that it was a publically accessible work of art.

The subway map of New York has come to stand for the whole city. Its ubiquitous presence through the subway networks has made many idiosyncratic aspects of its representation become naturalized. This confusion of the city with the map is best seen by the way New Yorkers use the map’s elements to express a certain social identity in the context of the city. Users of the F line are “far away” from the buzzing city center and are probably less affluent (in people’s minds), at the same time, people that live near Grand Central Station are perceived to have more status because they can afford to live near a station with so many crisscrossing lines. While some of these conceptions might be true, they stem out from a naturalization of the map’s covert relations of power and might mask important tensions that are hidden in the design of the map.

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