Animated GIFs Show How Subway Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & London Compare to the Real Geography of Those Great Cities

You can’t make a per­fect­ly accu­rate map, as Jorge Luis Borges so suc­cinct­ly told us, with­out mak­ing it the exact same size and shape as the land it por­trays. But giv­en the utter use­less­ness of such an enor­mous piece of paper (which so frus­trat­ed the cit­i­zens of the imag­i­nary empire in Borges’ sto­ry that, “not with­out some piti­less­ness,” they tossed theirs into the desert), no map­mak­er would ever want to. A more com­pact map is a more use­ful one; unfor­tu­nate­ly, a more com­pact map is also, by its very nature, a less accu­rate one.

New York

The same rule applies to maps of all kinds, and espe­cial­ly to tran­sit maps, quite pos­si­bly the most use­ful spe­cial­ized maps we con­sult today. They show us how to nav­i­gate cities, and yet their clean, bold lines, some­times turn­ing but nev­er waver­ing, hard­ly rep­re­sent those cities — sub­ject as they are to vari­a­tions in ter­rain and den­si­ty, as well as cen­turies of unplannably organ­ic growth — with geo­graph­i­cal faith­ful­ness. One can’t help but won­der just how each urban tran­sit map, some of them beloved works of design, strikes the use­ful­ness-faith­ful­ness bal­ance.


Liv­ing in Seoul, I’ve grown used to the city’s stan­dard sub­way map. I thus get a kick out of scru­ti­niz­ing the more geo­graph­i­cal­ly accu­rate one, which over­lays the train lines onto an exist­ing map of the city, post­ed on some sta­tion plat­forms. It reveals the truth that some lines are short­er than they look on the stan­dard map, some are much longer, and none cut quite as clean a path through the city as they seem to. At Twist­ed Sifter you’ll find a GIF gallery of 15 stan­dard sub­way maps that morph into more geo­graph­i­cal­ly faith­ful equiv­a­lents, a vivid demon­stra­tion of just how much tran­sit map design­ers need to twist, squeeze, and sim­pli­fy an urban land­scape to pro­duce some­thing leg­i­ble at a glance.


All of those ani­ma­tions, just five of which you see in this post, come from the sub­red­dit Data Is Beau­ti­ful, a realm pop­u­lat­ed by enthu­si­asts of the visu­al dis­play of quan­ti­ta­tive infor­ma­tion — enthu­si­asts so enthu­si­as­tic that many of them cre­ate inno­v­a­tive data visu­al­iza­tions like these by them­selves. Accord­ing to their cre­ations, sub­way maps, like that of New York City’s ven­er­a­ble sys­tem, do rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle to dis­tort the city; oth­ers, like Toky­o’s, look near­ly unrec­og­niz­able when made to con­form to geog­ra­phy.


Even the maps of new and incom­plete tran­sit net­works do a num­ber on the real shape and direc­tion of their paths: the map of Austin, Texas’ Cap­i­tal Metro­Rail, for instance, straight­ens a some­what zig-zag­gy north­east-south­west track into a sin­gle hor­i­zon­tal line. It may take a few gen­er­a­tions before Austin’s “sys­tem” devel­ops into one exten­sive and com­plex enough to inspire one of the great tran­sit maps (the ranks, for exam­ple, of “The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town”). But I would­n’t count out the pos­si­bil­i­ty: the more ful­ly cities real­ize their pub­lic-tran­sit poten­tial, the more oppor­tu­ni­ty opens up for the advance­ment of the sub­way map­mak­er’s art.

See all 15 of the sub­way GIFs at Twist­ed Sifter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

“The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town,” the Icon­ic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Sub­way Sys­tem

Bauhaus Artist Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy Designs an Avant-Garde Map to Help Peo­ple Get Over the Fear of Fly­ing (1936)

Why Mak­ing Accu­rate World Maps Is Math­e­mat­i­cal­ly Impos­si­ble

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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