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People believe subway maps over reality

Maps matter. Metro's and London's transit maps present distorted geographies in order to make the system's organization clearer. They have become iconic, but the way they present distances shapes people's understanding of space and distance in their region.

Image from Transport for London.

An NYU study found that distances on such maps affect people's travel choices much more than actual distances. Riders on the London Tube who had choices between multiple transfers were twice as likely to take the route that was shorter on the map but longer in real life. Even people who ride every weekday did this.

This reinforces an important idea we've discussed before: The map forms people's views of a city. To many people, the Metro map is the mental image of DC and the surrounding area. Geographic distortions may be appropriate to help a map be simpler, but designers should consider carefully the effect of each such change.

Peter Dunn pointed us to a Metro map he made, which makes distances match travel times. The overall shape of the map is the same, but stations that take longer to travel between appear farther apart:

Map by Peter Dunn.

This is less useful in many ways than the classic map. Most riders travel to and from stations in the core, and tourists or other riders unfamiliar with the system are most likely of all to do so. This map gives little space to that area and leaves large amounts of empty space at the edges.

However, based on the NYU study, this map would leave people with a much more accurate conception of the region. The question for mapmakers is, when is it more valuable to make a schematic map simple and understandable, and when does the way it distorts people's own mental maps of the area outweigh the benefit?

The current map, for example, greatly distorts the distances between stations and the key attractions on the Mall, which are most relevant to tourists and visitors. Someone looking at the map would think Metro Center and Federal Triangle are a lot closer to the White House than McPherson Square and Farragut West, which is not the case. Union Station appears to be much farther from the Capitol than it is; on the map, it looks like it's the same distance as Potomac Avenue.

Metro plans to add more rush hour trains over the Yellow Line bridge and have fewer rush hour trains going past Arlington Cemetery. People who ride from Franconia-Springfield to Foggy Bottom don't like that their commutes will get longer. But as Matt showed, the time difference is pretty small.

Would a map like Dunn's make this clearer, since it's obvious that the trip from Franconia to Pentagon is far longer than the trip either way into DC? Would that affect rider support for the plan? In this case, it may not matter, since Metro is going ahead regardless, but many future and more political decisions may well turn on people's mental maps, accurate or not.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Rosslyn to Court House looks too short.

I always estimate two minutes per stop and that ends up good enough for my needs.

by Michael Perkins on May 18, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport

That is why I like to use this map, that overlays the metro stations on google maps.

by Brian Gregory on May 18, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

It was a good effort but the accuracy of that map is off on several occasions. For instance, Chtn-Metro Center, Foggy Btm-Rosslyn and Airport-Braddock Road.

by Scoot on May 18, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport

So true, what an interesting find! The DC subway map very much helps me think I'm identifying relationships in the city, but it blurs my understanding of the heart of that area versus where a convenient placement for the metro truly is. Great find!

by Justin on May 18, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

The purpose of the Metro Map is to navigate the Metro system.

The fact that the distance between stations varies isn't really of importance to this particular map, nor should it concern riders that much, frankly.

by Alex B. on May 18, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

The Anacostia and Congress Heights stations in the Time-Scale map are switched.

by Mitch on May 18, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport

I get the feeling that the time scale map rounds to the nearest minute.

I ride the red line daily and the times between Farragut North and Friendship Heights are not all identical.

by Tim on May 18, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

@alex b. i was think the same thing if people want to navigate the city streets of washington get a tour guide or a taxi

by Jerome on May 18, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

The last point is very important - that many people's perception is driven by the metro map even though its a diagram of the metro system and not a map of the city, or even a true map of metro's placement in the city, and that distorted perception influences positions on policy.

Personally I prefer the time-distance map.

by Tina on May 18, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

Thanks for sharing my map. Just to be quite clear, I don't think time-scale is appropriate for the official Metro map. Although it may be more useful than true geographic scale, I was mostly just curious to see what it would look like.

I agree some times seem off, but they were are all taken straight from scheduled times on Metro's trip planner.

by peter dunn on May 18, 2011 12:12 pm • linkreport

I could offer tweaks here and there, but I really like what this map is trying to do.

by tom veil on May 18, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: The fact that the distance between stations varies isn't really of importance to this particular map, nor should it concern riders that much, frankly.

Really? The time it takes to get from one place to another shouldn't concern riders?

by jfruh on May 18, 2011 12:17 pm • linkreport


Yes, of course time matters. However, the different travel times between stations don't vary so much that those relatively small differences need to be shown on the map.

Most of the changes in that travel time map involve elongating the distances of the suburban stations. That's fine - but it's also irrelevant to that study cited from London, where passengers chose the shorter transfer, as it appeared on the map. A rider doesn't have any choice to make on the Orange line between Vienna and West Falls Church - the stops are where they are. It would be different if the system had express tracks or other rider choices to be made that would save time, but for the most part Metro does not have these choices.

Metro provides a certain level of service - that is part of the brand and a product of the technology. You don't need a map to show that - and to the extent that trying to show distance and/or time in a graphical fashion hurts the map's ability to help users navigate the system.

by Alex B. on May 18, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

@ Michael Perkins: I always estimate two minutes per stop and that ends up good enough for my needs.

That works downtown, but I am sure you understand you don't get from Reagan to Franconia-Springfield in 8 minutes. It's closer to 15.

by Jasper on May 18, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I rarely go further out than EFC, and I'm estimating travel time between inner stations rather than out in the suburbs. Like any rule of thumb, it doesn't work all the time.

by Michael Perkins on May 18, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

I'm partial to this map.

by Bob See on May 18, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

I like this (although Franconia to Van Dorn seems a bit off too).

With all that extra space on the map, you could even overlay some of the high-priority bus routes like this map from the contest.

I personally didn't think that Map N was perfect, but really do love the idea of using the negative space in the map to at least gently guide riders toward a bus map, and show things like the fact that the bus is a one-seat trip, and the fastest way from Eastern Market to U Street.

Don't get me wrong -- I love Metrorail. However, I think that we will all benefit from guiding certain riders toward our excellent, underutilized, and perfectly safe bus network.

by andrew on May 18, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

Very interesting, and I think the Metro map here makes that point pretty clear (even if it does shrink the core so much that it looks like one can transfer between Blue/Orange and Red at McPherson Square).

The thing is, though, I don't think we need this in Washington. In a system as big as London's, the effect identified in the NYU study would be much bigger or more likely than in a smaller system like Washington's. In other words, in London there are probably three or four (or more) ways to get from A to B on the Tube, whereas there are, at most, two ways to get from A to B on Metro, and none of those makes a very big difference in time.

So, to go from King Street to Federal Triangle, you could either take the Yellow and switch to Blue/Orange at L'Enfant and have two fewer stations than if you took the Blue via Rosslyn. But the transfer time probably makes that a wash (or much worse in non-peak).

But getting from Paddington to Holborn, for example, I count at least four practical ways to do that trip, and each would vary greatly time-wise.

by Ed on May 18, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

I think this is a great point and this was one of the variables I considered when I voted for the Redesigned Metro Maps. But I also think the fact that the above map leaves a lot of "empty space" isn't implicative that the map is "less useful" but that maybe the metro system is limiting.

Only one of the maps in the running for the redesigned metro map also showed the extensive network of bus lines. This would fill in that empty space and let riders know that all (or most of) the empty space IS accessible via public transit, but it just isn't accessible via the metro. It may be a little too clustered and confusing for people to understand how to navigate, but I think it's something that should really be considered.

But the last point is crucial - the city and it's interconnectedness as portrayed by the metro map can strongly influence the wrong political decisions regarding future plans for transit because of the distorted perception it creates of the city.

by Suz on May 18, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

Great post, I assume it was inspired by some of the discussion in the map making contest thread.

There's competing things here. The geographically accurate map integrated into google maps is great on a computer or a smart phone, but it's too hard to see downtown stations when it's printed out and posted on the metro without uncomfortably leaning over someone. The current metro map is a good starting point for the printed version but there's a few places where it could maintain better geographic fidelity without sacrificing readability.

by Brian on May 18, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

I could have saved these people alot of time. This is essentially the Amazing Race hypothetical at the airport.

Do you take a direct flight that leaves later and arrives later verse the flight were you need to transfer to another plan and possible arrive earlier.

The same can be said of taking a train and transferring. You have no idea the wait time on the transfer. It could save you time, and if you are an expert on the system, you will know the chances of that happening. But you could also deal with the issue of missing the first transfer train and have to wait. Most people are generally lazy, thus, they are more comfortable sitting it out on one train than packing up their crap and transferring.

Though, I used to ride the 4/5/6 and A/C/E in NYC and transfered from locals to expresses all the time and many people did the same.

by Burger on May 18, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

As I said in the map thread, metro should keep the current style map on trains, where people just glance at it to see how many stops remain until they get off. Space is at a premium, and legibility at a distance (ie, over peoples shoulders) is key.

Meanwhile, the stations, where people unfamiliar with the system do their planning should have giant, geographically accurate maps, numbers marking minutes between stations and points of reference (zoo, white house etc).

by JJJJJ on May 18, 2011 4:18 pm • linkreport

Are there any time distance maps for pedestrians, bikes, and cars during rush hour to and from DC? I would pay money for that map.

by Paul C on May 18, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

What's the point of a map if NOT to ACCURATELY present distances and relative locations? The current DC metro map shows the Dupont Circle station (north exit at Q St) as being NORTH of the U Street station. The NYC Subway map is similar the Google overlay map favored Brian Gregory above -- it can be used BOTH to ride the subway AND to navigate streets while walking, which is what most people must do to get to and from subway stations. I've seen tourists change trains twice to get from Archives to Federal Triangle because it looks FAR on the metro map -- while they could've just walked 3 blocks instead. What exactly is the argument FOR keeping the current inaccurate and misleading metro map the way it is?

by NYC girl on May 18, 2011 4:52 pm • linkreport

I like it. I'm more of a reality than schematic fan.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 18, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport


Because the metro 'map' isn't really a map at all - it's a diagram of the train system designed to help users navigate the system. The primary purpose is to show users which lines are which, what order the stations are in, where they can transfer, etc.

To solve your tourist scenario - you'd basically just need a regular city map with the Metro lines drawn on. I'm not sure that would help the tourists at all, but it would certainly degrade the ability for users to quickly glean information about the Metro system, however.

by Alex B. on May 18, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

NYC Girl: The NYC subway map distorts space too. It makes it look like the B/D/F/M is the same distance from the 1/2/3 on one side and the 4/5/6 on the other. But, in fact, the 1/2/3 is on 7th Ave and the B/D/F/M on 6th, one block, but it's then 3-4 blocks over to the 4/5/6; some of those blocks are shorter, but it's still at least twice as far from 6th to Park or Lex than from 7th to 6th.

The NYC subway map is more geographical than most cities' though.

by David Alpert on May 18, 2011 5:12 pm • linkreport


I think the KickMap does a far better job in deciphering New York's system:

It's much easier to a) understand the logic behind the naming and coloring of the various services, b) determine which services stop at various stations along the trunk lines and which skip stops (a problem that DC does not have), and c) display a much simpler diagram of service while still providing enough topography to navigate around the city.

I mean, just look at the Bronx comparison:

by Alex B. on May 18, 2011 5:15 pm • linkreport

Alex: That's a nice map.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 18, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

I believe at one point NYC had both a schematic diagram style map and a more geographically accurate map (which is what is currently used). There is logic in both, and ideally, both would be available, but I don't think it would be practical to maintain two maps.

Also, I've found this interesting- the London Underground based on time:

by wr on May 18, 2011 5:33 pm • linkreport

This is why, when I travelled in Paris, I preferred this map:

It was overlayed on top of the roads. Almost all stations had three maps: the commuter rail diagram, the metro diagram, and the metro lines overlayed on a map of the streets (like what I just linked to). It was so much easier to find where I wanted to go and where to make connections (or if it was worth it to get off somewhere else and walk).

For the outer stations, they just are just put on a "white space" (seen on many of the lines that hit the edges of the map). Most of the people who take those are commuters who know what is close to where they want to go.

It's a bit more info, but I think it's important info about how to actually get around the city. Then you have the diagrams around just to help remind you of where you are going.

Just my 2c.

by Matt on May 18, 2011 8:53 pm • linkreport

I also agree with Alex B. on the New York map. If I had seen that map when I visited NY the past few times, it would have made my subway experience MUCH easier. The combination of colors, letters, names, and express/local differences just make it a mess. Not to mention the fact that locals aren't always sure where different "neighborhoods" of the City are. Who's up for getting NYC to adopt that map?

by Matt on May 18, 2011 9:02 pm • linkreport

MTA has already rejected the KICK map. They felt it distorted the geography of the city too much. In many respects, MTA is still reacting to Vignelli's 1972 diagrammatic map, which distorted the city far too much.

by Matt Johnson on May 18, 2011 9:09 pm • linkreport

+1 for the map from Bob from wikipedia. Put that over a Google Map and you have something (I personally don't like the one with the pins as much).

by David R on May 19, 2011 8:24 am • linkreport

No single map will answer every need. No single map can.

People tend to hold up Massimo Vignelli's diagrammatic map of the NYC subway as an example of the ideal map. In fact, Vignelli didn't just make a diagrammatic map. He proposed an entire system of maps, providing different maps for different informational needs. MTA started with the diagram, but never created the rest of the system.

See Mr. Vignelli's comments at Design Observer.

Vignelli wanted four maps:

(1) A diagrammatic map, to help people move within the system.

(2) A geographic map, so that travelers could relate the subway to the city as a whole.

(3) A neighborhood map, for local orientation.

(4) A "verbal map," a set of directions in word form.

Metro has (1) and (3). The nature of (4) is a little vague, but there is a need for (2). There is space on the existing panels for both a large diagram and a small map drawn to scale. Really, though, Metro needs an improved, more-coherent wayfinding system, and an expanded system would provide space for richer information.

p.s. Seriously? Not only are there 30-40 Davids on this site, there are now at least two David Rs?!

by David Ramos on May 19, 2011 11:04 pm • linkreport

I'd also challenge the notion that the current, super-sized map is useful for reading on crowded trains. I've observed that in busy periods, standing passengers block line of sight, meaning that anyone who wants to consult the map still needs to move to within 3-5 feet of the panel.

All that extra size is nice, but it doesn't really help, and it uses space that we might put to other purposes. Small maps mounted above the windows would do more for usability during crush periods.

by David Ramos on May 19, 2011 11:18 pm • linkreport

The Vignelli link is cool background. I totally agree on the above the window/door idea, lots of other systems do that. They would have to give up some ad space though :/

by David R on May 20, 2011 9:09 am • linkreport

Metro should at least put a disclaimer "this map is not to scale."

by Metro Hater on May 22, 2011 9:17 am • linkreport

I have a Masters in T&L and the best maps I've seen are in Bangkok, Thailand.

They already took your idea and ran with it.

They have BOTH maps, one that shows distance/time and one that shows transport hubs close to each other.

Guangzhou, China also has a pretty decent map, although it needs to be updated badly.

Having multiple maps is not expensive when compared to the cost of riders being confused. I would suggest having no less than 3 maps, one that measures distance between stops and between other lines, one that measures time, and one that accurately portrays the metro map on top of the city overlay (realistic).

In today's information age, there's no reason we should not have a multi-layered view of the city.

City's are like ogres they have layers, also similar to onions, but not cake.

by JM on Dec 14, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

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