Power and Domination: Sub-par Subway maps

I recently saw the jaw-dropping NYC Panorama, a painstakingly accurate scale model of all five boroughs of NYC, at the Queen’s Museum of Art. D Train and I agreed: Staten Island is huge! Queens in enormous! Brooklyn is gargantuan! Now, why did this come as such a surprise? Where could we have picked up our misconceptions about the relative sizes of said boroughs?

You guessed it! The subway. I’m like 99% sure that the MTA subway map (ahem, forgive me; “The Map”) is geographically inaccurate. Not only does it mis-represent Manhattan as running from North to South, as you can see by the little axis askew in the top left corner, but (I believe) it also significantly distorts the sizes of the boroughs.

This makes sense because the entire subway system was designed to shuttle people to and from Manhattan. (Far less consideration was given to intra-Brooklyn travel, as any Brooklynite knows!) Hence, Manhattan appears larger than it really is. Geography suffers in favor of purpose.

Communications professor Johndan Johnson-Eilola writes:

“At first glance, a map that doesn’t directly correspond to the object it’s mapping seems like a bad thing. But that’s what maps are: useful abstractions. They’re smaller than reality, less detailed, are usually two-dimensional. That shouldn’t been seen as a limitation, but added information. The abstractions suggest to us what features we would benefit from paying attention to.”

[thanks to work/space]

Ah, but who sets the agenda for what I should pay attention to? When a map becomes an icon rather than simply a tool for accessing information, this is a crucial question.

Let’s think quickly about the world map. (You’ve probably heard this spiel before…)


This is our most familiar image of the world, a Mercator projection world map, which was originally intended for nautical navigation. It distorts area or geographical size in favor of “true bearing”, i.e the Earth’s angles of a constant value are represented as straight lines for easy navigation.

Keep in mind that Africa is 13 times the size of Greenland — it certainly doesn’t appear that way on the Mercator map.

Now check this out:


This is the Gall-Peters projection world map, which represents area accurately.

You may remember the episode of “The West Wing” in which C.J. is wowed by mapmakers from a fictional non-profit the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. These nerdy characters believe that the Mercator map, by exaggerating the size of North America and Western Europe, furthers an agenda of quasi-colonial domination by the Global North. Silly or not, you must admit that they have a point.

Are those of us who live in the so-called “outer boroughs” being subjected to a similar course of domination by Manhattanites, at the hands of the MTA?

But, of course!


Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Power and Domination: Sub-par Subway maps”

  1. William Bruntrager Says:

    Entertaining, but you’ve definitely gone too far on this one, unless you are joking. Are you joking?

  2. Benjamin Kabak Says:

    If the MTA were to do an accurate map of the city, you would see vast tracts of Queens with no subway service and Manhattan all but illegible. I live in Brooklyn and understand your outer-borough pain. But in this case, the practicalities of having a legible map far outweigh the potential for hurt feelings.

  3. Jason Says:

    It may be better to think about the subway map as a graphic designed to explain routes and the approximate arrangement of stations, rather than a map meant to describe space in the real world.

    In response to your assertion that this indicates an attempt at “domination by Manhattanites, at the hands of the MTA”, I would suggest that the subway map is actually doing many neighborhoods in the outer boroughs a favor by making them seem less like they are in the middle of nowhere than would a geographically accurate map.

  4. tripinchina Says:

    Bill, all of the fun is having you wonder whether I’m joking or not.

    Ben, good point.

    Jason, in response to your suggestion, I agree that the subway map is perhaps making remote neighborhoods seem more accessible. I would also ask: do you think this plays a role in the much-hashed-over process of gentrification?

    There’s an idea out there that the city of London actually developed in the pattern of their tube map, which is *notorious* for its geographic inaccuracies.

    Do economic forces follow subway maps? I wonder…

    Check out this link for more:


  5. Jessica Says:

    I agree with what Jason said… compared to many other subway maps out there, ours is worlds ahead. First of all, it actually has the subway lines imposed on top of an actual (if distorted) map. When I was in London, I took one subway trip that involved one stop on one line, a transfer and then another stop… but when I got out of the station, I could see that I was only three blocks away from where I had started. For all the problems with the MTA, I don’t think THAT would happen given our subway map.

    Heck, at least we don’t still have three competing private transit companies, each with their maps and fees!

  6. tripinchina Says:


    Yeah the London map is notorious for that sort of thing. They sacrificed accuracy for clarity…as the MTA did, to a lesser degree. Since I originally wrote this post, I’ve come to think of the MTA map as a happy medium between clarity and accuracy.

    Also, I had no idea about the 3 competing private companies. Interesting stuff.

    On that note, I used to be sort of instinctively opposed to private companies getting involved in mass transit but then I happened to be in Brighton, England and I was lucky enough to get a ride on the Big Lemon.

    check it out:


    Basically, it’s a privately owned bus network where all the buses run on bio-diesel (read: vegetable oil), a ride is 50p (more than $1) cheaper than the state-run bus service, and they have a strict friendly-only hiring policy for drivers. Of course, Britain has different rules and regulations and Brighton is a fairly small town with only 150,00 people…and it’s well known as safe haven for hippies, intellectuals, homosexuals, and others who have been marginalized by British society. So I have no idea if a business model like that could be applicable on a wider range. But it fills me with hope nonetheless!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: