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!