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Transport / Mass transit

London’s iconic tube map is 84 years old. It’s time to scrap it

Once upon a time, long enough ago that even CityMetric’s granddad was in short trousers, London’s tube map looked like, well, a map. The brightly coloured lines of the underground would wind their way among the backdrop of faint grey street map, and they did so with a pretty high level of geographical accuracy. You, quite literally, knew where you were.

But then in 1931 a young draughtsman named Harry Beck had one of those insights that changed the world so completely, that it’s become hard to understand how nobody had had it before: when you are on a train, you don’t actually need to know where you are. All you actually need to know is what order the stations are in, and where your line connects up with others in the network. 

So Beck threw geographical accuracy to the winds and redesigned the map, so it was all straight lines and regular angles, and so that stations were pretty evenly spaced. The resulting map was so popular it’s become a symbol of London itself, and 84 years on maps like it are still in use in transport systems all over the world. Beck’s tube map isn’t just a map: it’s a genuine design classic. 

Anyway, we were thinking that maybe it was time that Transport for London (TfL) junk the whole thing and start again. 

Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The problem with the current map is not that Beck’s principles are suddenly all wrong – but they are being horrifically badly applied. Here’s the version of the map published this month:

The horror! The horror! 

Euch.

There are a number of things here that make the whole thing a bit eye-watering. There’s the two-tone grey zonal map, which makes it look like the whole thing’s chosen its background from a collection of corporate art works of the 1970s. There’s the bunching of lines in the north east corner, which means the map has lost the simplicity and readability that was meant to be its whole selling point. And there’s the fact that at least six entirely separate routes are shown in the same tone of Overground orange, making the idea of seeing how stations link up at a glance basically laughable.

The hateful zonal fares thing is something TfL could switch off any time it wanted to. (It won’t, but it could.) But the other two problems have the same much deeper roots. 


That’s because Beck’s map was designed for a relatively simple network. There were only a handful of lines, so you only needed a handful of colours, and most of them radiated out from the centre to different parts of suburbia. They all cross stitched enthusiastically in central London, so you drew that bit bigger; but nonetheless the map was simple enough that you could generally see at a glance where your train would take you.

Today’s network, though, is vastly more complex. It doesn’t just have radial lines, but orbital ones galore. It’s trying to show at least 22* different routes. Both those things are disproportionately concentrated in its north eastern quadrant. As a result, there aren’t enough colours, and there’s not enough space, hence: Euch.

So, at the very least, the tube map needs a redesign, to clean up some of that mess and bring a measure of readability back. But what if it’s time to go further? What if it’s time that we scrapped the thing altogether?

Your next eastbound train will arrive in 48 hours

The tube map, after all, is meant to show a coherent network, on which you can expect a reasonably consistent level of service. It doesn’t show every railway line in London, but that was the whole point, really. Much of London’s heavy rail network has historically been infrequent and rubbish; the fact a line was on the tube map, in effect, was a mark of some sort of quality.

The current map, though, doesn’t just show the tube: of the 20+ routes on there, only 11 of them are on the Underground at all. That wasn’t really a problem until recently, because the DLR and the earlier waves of London Overground lines both provide high frequency metro-style services. But then the inclusion of the Emirates Airline meant that, suddenly, the map was showing something which really didn’t deserve to be there.

And this latest expansion means the map suddenly features proper railway lines which aren’t actually very good. The branches to Enfield Town and Cheshunt both run all of two trains an hour. The Romford to Upminster line runs at the same frequency**, when it runs at all, and has literally one train. 

By contrast, Wimbledon gets a train to Waterloo roughly every four minutes, but the map is oddly silent on this fact. (The obvious reason for this is that the route in question isn’t run by TfL, but TfL’s tram service also serves Wimbledon, and that doesn’t appear on the tube map either, so god only knows.)

The bottom line here is that anyone who turns up to Turkey Street or Emerson Park expecting the same kind of service as they’d get on the Central line is in for a nasty shock, and the current tube map makes no effort to communicate this fact.

So what purpose does the tube map actually serve? It doesn’t show only the best services. It doesn’t show all the best services. It isn’t even easy to read. And it is, these days, remarkably ugly. So what’s it for?

There’s second London-wide transport map in circulation these days: the combined Tube & Rail Map. That’s also shockingly ugly, but does at least have the advantage of not missing off chunks of the capital’s transport network purely, because TfL don’t happen to run them yet.

Given all that, we have to ask – is there any point in keeping the tube map at all?

*By our count: 11 tube, six Overground, and one a piece for TfL Rail and the cable car. How many different routes the DLR is made up of is a matter of some debate – they’re not branded as separate lines – but it’s hard to find any way that it’s less than three (two to Stratford and one to central London).

**Until I was 15 I lived in a house that backed onto this line, and as a child I’d sometimes play chicken with the trains. This was obviously quite catastrophically stupid, but it would have been a whole lot stupider if it wasn’t such a silly little line in the first place.
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