Click here to view a larger version of the map Or here for an alternate version with proper accessibility icons
London’s Underground Diagram (or “Tube Map”) has long been regarded as an icon of informational design, pioneering the way for just about every other schematic transportation map in the world since its inception way back in 1931. But how much of that reputation is actually deserved these days?
The Underground network has grown in both size and complexity in the decades since the Tube Map’s debut, and H.C. Beck’s ingenious design has been asked to convey more and more information with each passing year: more Underground lines than he probably ever envisioned, the addition of the Overground and DLR, fare zone shading (an early version of which he absolutely loathed), accessibility icons and more. Personally, I believe that the map — in its current format — is ill-equipped to handle future additions, especially with the just-announced decision to gradually transfer all Greater London commuter rail services to TfL’s control under the Overground brand.
A number of designers have proposed alternative London rail maps that deal with this problem — like this lovely diagram by the very talented Jug Cerovic — but I started to wonder: what if the Tube Map was just drawn better?
There’s no doubt in my mind that the current iteration of the Tube Map is a diagram that’s almost completely forgotten that it is one. There’s very little rhythm, balance or flow to the composition of the map outside the central “thermos flask”, and there’s shockingly little use of a underlying unifying grid. As a result, nothing really aligns properly with anything else anymore.
Much of the blame for this belongs to the hideous alternating-stripes fare zones, which have to go around every element that belongs to a station. If there’s a long station name, the zone has to enclose it completely, which can push the station marker out of harmonious spacing with the other stations on the line (see the Piccadilly line out to Heathrow), or force station names to suddenly swap to the opposite side of the route line (hello, southern end of the Northern line!). The more I look at the map, the more it’s obvious that the zones are making the routes and stations subsidiary to them, not the other way around.
So — first things first: the zones have to go. They’ve only been on the Tube Map since 2002, so it’s not a huge loss. TfL could offer an extra map that contains this information if people need it (like many European transit agencies do), but I kind of get the feeling that tap-on, tap-off Oyster cards mitigate the need for most travellers to know which zones they’re passing through.
Next, the accessibility icons, which are a design problem for a few reasons. Their use of a large circular station marker — regardless of whether or not they’re an interchange station — adds visual confusion and clutter to the map, and impedes the reading flow of route lines. The DLR is a web of blue blobs (which is fantastic for accessibility needs) and becomes very visually heavy in comparison to the rest of the map. See how much nicer it looks below with ticks for stations!
I wanted to find a way to reserve the circular station shape to only indicate interchanges (it’s original purpose), which meant I had to come up with an different way to show accessible stations. Because London unusually shows two types of accessible stations — street to platform, and street to train — a reader has to first refer to the map’s legend to determine which icon is which. Using this to my advantage, I devised simple circular blue dots — hollow for street to platform, and solid for street to train — that could either be placed inside an interchange station’s circle, or next to a standard station’s name along with National Rail, water services and other informational icons. The idea for placing a small circle inside an interchange circle had its roots in the Tube Map itself, which used a small black dot inside an interchange to indicate connections to British Rail in the 1964 Paul Garbutt-designed version of the map. Design-wise, I think that it’s an unobtrusive and attractive solution, although it’s probably illegal under some Disabilities Act or another to not use a wheelchair icon to indicate accessibility. This design solution also had the added bonus of restoring most of the lovely and distinctive terminus station “bars” to the map — blobs having replaced all but three of them (Watford, Mill Hill East and Cockfosters) on the official map.
Above, you can see my blue icons set inside an interchange symbol (right) in a diagram that illustrates the other major problem with the accessibility blobs: they force route lines further apart than they should be. In their natural state, double-interchange symbols actually overlap each other by the width of their black outline, which is half the thickness of a route line.
However, the accessibility icons can’t overlap without one icon partially obscuring the other and the connecting bar between the two circles being completely lost. So the circles and their respective route lines have to be set a little further apart (with a very odd gap of 2.19x by my calculations, compared to the 1.5x minimum possible gap). A difference of 0.69x may not seem like much, but the tighter spacing definitely helps the Metropolitan/Jubilee line pairing from St. Johns Wood to Wembley Park work together as a coherent element. It also saves a surprising amount of space in other places, which helps the map feel a little lighter and more spacious throughout.
Alignment of elements is something I worked incredibly hard on to restore the diagram-like qualities of the map. Stations line up with each other across the map: see from Northfields on the Piccadilly all the way across to Embankment. Below that, Gunnersbury, West Brompton and Waterloo align; and then Fulham Broadway, Pimlico and Lambeth North. The northern branch of the Bakerloo line aligns vertically with the Hammersmith & City line, the DLR into Stratford International aligns diagonally with the Overground line above it. Across the top of the map, Watford, Watford Junction, High Barnet, Enfield Town and Chingford all line up perfectly. This intentional alignment creates an invisible grid that standardises and unifies the whole map.
Other smaller changes:
Inclusion of Crossrail wasn’t as hard as I expected, although the “mega-stations” at Farringdon/Barbican and Moorgate/Liverpool Street are pretty unwieldy. I did manage to keep it dead straight between Bond Street and Whitechapel, which is nice. Added bonus: the return of Beck’s beautiful “TO” box to indicate stations off the western edge of the map.
Some more accurate station location, especially at the eastern end of the Victoria line, where the Overground line is now correctly shown to the south of Seven Sisters, not the north. Bethnal Green and Shoreditch High Street Overground stations are now located in the correct place relative to the Central line. The Overground passes between St. Johns Wood and Swiss Cottage on its way to Euston.
General straightening of Overground lines, especially from Canonbury to Stratford and the whole southern orbit from Clapham Junction to the (soon to open) New Bermondsey station. The loop into Clapham Junction from Imperial Wharf mimics the real-life layout of the station and helps to reinforce that you have to change trains there, but may be a little bit overbearing. I’ll have to think about that one.
White strokes separating route lines when they cross but don’t otherwise interact. The official map does this inconsistently, so I decided to carry it across the whole map. I think it works, especially in the north-east part of the map where a lot of routes cross over each other.
Removal of interchange circles at stations where the interchange is only with National Rail. The NR arrow does the work here, and it’s ridiculous to have an interchange circle sitting on a single Underground line by itself, like what used to be at South Ruislip. Note also that I’ve removed the ridiculous north-western alignment of the Piccadilly/Metropolitan lines west of Rayners Lane.
More accurate drawing that adheres to the design rules of the map better. At Earl’s Court, I was able to expand the District line curve around to Kensington (Olympia) into a proper 3x-radius half-circle, unlike the official map, which cheats its little heart out to make things fit (see below).
Really little things: Throwback water lines on the Thames. Routing information on the map for London Fields and Cambridge Heath Overground stations. Lord’s cricket ground. Abbey Road clarification in the legend. Flipping the river service and coach icons so they’re travelling to the right of the map (forwards with our left-to-right reading logic), rather than to the left.
You’ve made it this far? Congratulations, here’s a couple of before-and-after views for you to finish things off! The first gives a general comparative overview of the two maps, and the second rejoices in the fact that I made the “thermos flask” completely symmetrical (though it’s more of a “wine bottle” now, I think!)
See also my further notes on the map’s design.