The Great Subway Map War of 1978, revisited

Design fans love transit maps, but thanks to Google and GPS they may be a thing of the past

For those too young to remember, the Great Subway Map War of 1978 pitted two schools of New York mapmaking nerds against each other in a heated debate in the Great Hall of Manhattan’s Cooper Union. In one corner were supporters of Italian graphic designer Massimo Vignelli’s modernist, diagrammatic map of New York City’s transit system. In the other, those who preferred John Tauranac and his Subway Map Committee’s more geographic version. Insults were traded. Colors were debated. (Was Central Park green enough? Was the East River blue enough? Since when was the East River blue?) Massimo, whose 1972 map thrilled design enthusiasts but mostly confused the public, said Tauranac's map made him want to "puke," and later thanked the moderator for helping him suppress “homicidal urges” toward his cartographical foes.

Last night, some of those same participants — their hair a little grayer, their backs slightly more bent — gathered in the college’s Great Hall again, but for a different kind of debate. Rather than brood over color coding, station dots, or intertwining routes versus parallel lines, the question was now whether physical transit maps even mattered anymore. In an age of Google and GPS, when smartphone ownership conveys the power to distill the most complex directions into a simple list of step-by-step instructions, the concept of the paper subway map never seemed more quaint.

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Chaos on the subway platform when the new color-coded map and nomenclature came into use on Monday, November 27th, 1967. (Courtesy of Cooper Union)

None of the participants in last night’s discussion — including Tauranac, whose highly readable, geographic map prevailed over Massimo’s cooler, aesthetic version to become the basis of the map still in use today; Raleigh D’Adamo, whose 1964 map was the first to color-code the subway routes; and Eddie Jabbour, a designer who helped create the popular KickMap app — were ready to declare print maps dead. But they all agreed that with the advent of smartphones and the willingness of transit agencies to release more data to app developers, the future was clearly in the hands of the engineers rather than the cartographers.

"We’re no longer just map readers, we’re no longer just map users or designers or creators. We’re actually blue dots," said Sarah Kaufman, assistant director for technology programming at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, referring to the symbol showing your GPS location on a Google map. "Without us, the map is nothing. It means that we give the map context and purpose."

Much still depends on slothlike organizations like the MTA to make their data available to the people who can turn it into cool products, she said. Thankfully, 292 transit agencies around the world are now doing this, which will make it easier to navigate public transit systems in the future — especially ones that are coming apart at the seams like New York’s.

Similar to the first debate in ’78, two schools of thought emerged during the discussion: those who saw the current subway map as flawed, needing improvement, but ultimately necessary; and those who think its relevancy was on the decline. Jabbour, whose KickMap was considered and rejected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2007, advocated for a universal map with a consistent user interface that can be used in any city but still retain the unique features of each transit system. "It doesn’t mean that the cities are the same or that it’s a homogenous experience," he said. "We’re a big fan of cities. It’s more than just a diagram. It’s more than just getting from point A to point B."

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Eddie Jabbour's KickMap has been described as a hybrid of Vignelli and Tauranac. (KickMap)

The veteran subway mapmakers on the panel, D’Adamo and Tauranac, were understandably skeptical about the death of their craft, especially as maps become more interactive and alive. "I frankly hate little maps on the iPhone," Tauranac grumbled. "The big picture is critical."

D’Adamo, whose homespun tale of winning the 1964 contest to design a better subway map was the evening’s highlight, said he was optimistic about the future. He said he envisioned real-time updates about service changes, route activity, and station conditions being made available to subway riders. "But also I would go one step further, and think there would be a passenger input button," he said, "where the passenger can either on his iPhone or on the kiosk input a date and time in the future, and the map will then react with what the system will be like when the person wants to travel." He admitted he wasn’t sure whether such innovation was available yet or not. (Indeed, many map applications allow users to specify date and time of travel to account for service changes.)

The paper map never seemed more quaint

Jabbour, whose KickMap has been described as a modern hybrid of Vignelli’s sleek design with Tauranac’s devotion to geography, seemed determined to inject the event with some feistiness in the absence of Vignelli, who died in 2014. He dismissed Google Maps as a "terrible transit map," and lobbed insults at the MTA’s new touchscreen subway map kiosks that were rolled out last year, criticizing them for serving as a vehicle to inundate straphangers with animated advertisements rather than useful transit information.

"They’re kind of like dinosaurs," he said. "What are we doing with things [that are] bolted to the floor and are huge, when you have your iPhone in your hand?"

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Raleigh D'Adamo with a 1964 photograph of his map. (Reka Komoli)

The kiosks, which are now found in 31 stations, provide real-time train information, as well as service disruptions, which are frequent on the notorious Lexington Avenue line — a line so busy that it alone sees more passengers per day than the entire Washington, DC Metro.

Neysa Pranger, director of strategy consulting at Intersection, the company that created the wayfinding kiosks, defended them for helping improve the flow of communication between the MTA and riders, but one that has yet to still reach its full potential. She also hinted at a future where riders are more comfortable sharing their location and other personal data to make getting from one place to another using multiple modes of transportation as seamless as possible. "We are just trying to get around," Pranger said. "We are using the subway, we’re using ferries, we’re using Citi Bike, we’re using Uber. As soon as there is location information across systems, then this concept of mobility as a service — which is a single point of routing, planning, and paying for your ride — can start to come online."