Home     |     Maps     |     About

New York Sunday News - August 6, 1972
How to Get There From Here

By Ken McKenna

A colorful picture of the world’s most complex transit system will debut tomorrow – the first major design change in the New York City Subway map in five years.

Facade aside, the new guide attempts to give passengers a graphic concept of the city’s 237-mile rapid transit network through innovative design and cartographic techniques.

For your convenience, an exclusive lift-up version of the map can be found on the four adjoining pages. The official pocket map will be available tomorrow in limited quantities in change booths throughout the system.

In revamping the subway chart, the idea was to sweep away the clutter of information that covered the previous map and make it easier for passengers to follow individual routes from point to point through a simplified color code.

It’s a “follow-the-yellow-brock-road” approach, except the road may be orange, magenta or any of the half dozen or so shades that designate each of the system’s 26 lines.

So much of the boxed information that filled the previous version has been smoothed over that the veteran straphanger may feel initially that some essential facts are missing.

But the same data is there, only organized for easier accessibility. "The old map gave the same information twice in almost every category. It told where a train stopped and what train stopped there,” an official of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said. 'This map says it once and more clearly.”

William J. Ronan, chairman of the MTA, sees the map's introduction as part of the overall effort to increase traffic on mass transit. After all, the authority can expect few repeat customers among New Yorkers or visitors who become lost in the subway maze only to be further befuddled by a non-decipherable map.

He does expect "a certain upset" with the innovation on the part of the riding public. "When you make changes, you have to expect some negative opinions," he said. "Like when a person is faced with a pair of new shoes, he might want to keep the old ones."

Some dissatisfaction is inevitable in a system that on a normal day carries 4.2 million passengers, most of them regulars addicted to routine. Probably the biggest shocker will be the dumping of the familiar outlines of Manhattan Island and the other boroughs. In order to stress the transit routes themselves, the geographical features of the city are faded into the background in muted grays, beiges and whites. Landmarks such as the East River are suggested symbolically. In contrast, the 1967 map looks as much a chart for mariners as for subway riders.

"Maps like these have to make deliberate distortions to clarify." an MTA spokesman commented. “We tried to make sure that nothing unnecessary distracts the eye from the subway routes. There’s no sence in using a transit map for geography lesson.”

The innate difficulties in creating a readable map lie not so much in size - 720 miles of trackage-but in the complexities of the system itself. The Interborough Rapid Transit Co., the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Co. (originally Brooklyn Rapid Transit) and the Independent were born many years apart and sired by men with different approaches to railroading. Any amalgamation was bound to be untidy.

Built as competing railroads, they were designed to woo passengers from each other and often followed the same routes, mainly in the major Manhattan traffic centers.

In the two blocks between Sixth Ave. and Eighth Ave. under 42d St., for instance, 17 of the system's 26 lines converge in a giant mixture of track and tunnel. On an average weekday, half of the subway riding public pass along these routes. But the busiest single station stands across town in Grand Central, which handles 36.5 million passengers a year.

The city, when it took over operation of the BMT and IRT in 1940, was faced with tunneling into one integrated network a hodgepodge of tracks and router that crisscrossed, overlapped and often had no connections.

In fact, during the latest revision of the map, many argued (that the only way to create an easy-to-follow transit guide was to alter the physical operation of the subway itself, which is a little like making nature conform to art.

What later became such a challenge to orderliness began rather bombastically at the turn of the century at a City Hall ground-breaking ceremony stirred by the martial airs of John Philip Sousa and his band.

So carried away with the wonder of it all was Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck that he compared the project with the Erie Canal and intoned to a gathering of 20,000: “No Roman citizen ever entertained a keener pride in the glory of that imperial city than did the New Yorker in the name of his home city.”

Since London had constructed the first underground railway in 1863 and, in the United States Boston had beaten New York to a subway two years before, the civic pride seems somewhat misplaced.

Four years later in 1904, the IRT sped in a ceremonial run from City Hall to a 137th St. terminus. The next day public service was started and newspapers recorded, with some astonishment, the city’s first rush-hour subway jam. August Belmont, the racetrack fancier who was the IRT’s principal financier, was not displeased. Belmont, incidentally, commanded his own private subway car. It was fitted out with mahogany and teak, and boasted a galley and picture windows so he and his guests could watch the signal lights flash.

The next year, the IRT extended lines to the Battery and the Bronx, and in 1908 tunneled to Brooklyn and Borough Hall. Competition came in 1913 with the building of the BMT. The groundwork also was laid for complications for the future combined system when the BMT opted for wider cars – only by 15 inches – which would carry more passengers.

The Independent did the same when it opened in 1932. As a result, to this day BMT and IND trains do not fit through IRT tunnels, though the gauge on the three lines are the same. Not only map makers but traffic directors have problems with the integrated system.

Over the years, a myth evolved that the subway initially were privately owned. They never were. The city paid private contractors to build the IRT and BMT, then leased the facilities to private operating companies. The Independent, despite its name, was owned and operated by the city from the start.

Another common misconception is that the New York underground is the busiest in the world. But last year’s total of 1,227,849,267 passengers was surpassed by the Moscow subway (1,502,000,000) and Tokyo line (1,461,500,000).

And the real heart of New York rapid transit is located neither at Grand Central nor Times Square but at the Broadway-Nassau-Fulton station in downtown Manhattan. Here 10 separate lines meet, more than at any other of the system’s 476 stations. “That’s where it all comes together,” an MTA official said.

Original Publication Date: 08/06/72