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Project: 1954 Manhattan Rapid Transit Flow Diagram Digital Recreation

1954 Manhattan Flow Diagram

Click here to view a larger version of the map

I’ve long admired this beautiful 1954 flow diagram of subway service into Manhattan during the morning peak hour, so I set myself the personal challenge of recreating it using modern design tools (Adobe Illustrator) while still staying true to the original principles of the map.

While it was certainly possible to just trace the source material in Illustrator with the pen tool and end up with a decent facsimile of the original, there’s really nothing to be learned from doing so. I wanted to understand how the original diagram maker might have worked, and to see just how accurately the diagram represents the service numbers as shown on all the labels.

1954 Manhattan Flow - Detail 1

Using the map’s “Scale of Cars”, I was able to work out a formula that would give me the numerically accurate stroke width to use based on the numbers presented, which I then applied to all the different lines as shown on the map. The numbers held true throughout most of the map, with only the very thinnest lines (the lowest number of trains per hour) being slightly thickened on the map for clarity and ease of drawing. “Cheating” to get things to line up or add up only happens in a couple of locations across the map – mainly at complex junctions –  which is definitely a testament to the original designer’s skills.

1954 Manhattan Flow - Detail 2

Once I had drawn all my paths to the right width and placement for each subway division (BMT, IRT and IND), I expanded them out into polygons that I could then merge into compound paths for the final artwork. These shapes were then copied to a layer above the fills to be used as a basis for the black strokes used to define each route line.

1954 Manhattan Flow - Detail 3

Typography was actually pretty easy for this map, with everything being easily identifiable: Futura is the main labelling font, with the slab serif Rockwell being used for some locality information. Water features are labelled in Century Schoolbook Italic, and feature the only concession to modern design tools on the map – using a neat white stroke behind each letter to separate it from the stippled background rather than the clumsy cut-out rectangles of the original. Finding a good match for the Art Deco borough names was perhaps the hardest task – Neutraface isn’t exactly perfect, but it definitely evokes the right feeling.

A quick note on mid-century typography here: tracking is generally much looser than what we’re used to with modern digital typesetting (a setting of +60 to +80 in Illustrator’s Character palette was often required to get type to match the original, along with a fair bit of manual kerning), and word spacing is positively enormous, being just shy of two standard-width spaces in most cases, or close to an em-space. A couple of things to bear in mind if you’re ever after that “1950s look” to your typography!

1954 Manhattan Flow - Detail 4

After the hard work of drawing the route lines, it was then just a matter of tediously adding all the labels, arrows and underlying geography to the map. The stipple effect used for the water matches the original very nicely, and is actually a cartographic Illustrator pattern swatch that normally represents sandy areas on a map. The water “contours” are offset copies of the coastline path: on the original map, these would have been drawn by hand.

Overall, recreating this map was very enjoyable and instructive, and the end result is certainly quite beautiful. Let me know what you think of my efforts in the comments section below!

Note: This one is a personal design project only, and I won’t be selling prints of it. If you’re interested in a reproduction print of the original map, head on over to the Ward Maps website.


  1. Andrew Wonnacott

    Hi Cam! This is a really pretty map, and I’m very impressed. 🙂 Is there enough modern-day data to build an updated version – using modern day routings, service levels, and capacities? Are you considering this as a future project?

    • Andrew, I feel sure that there is data out there for an updated modern-day map, but it’s not something I really want to pursue at the moment. New York-centric transportation blogs might be a better place to find or request that specific map.

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