On Sunday I posted a photo of the new Tube map to Flickr. I was careful not to say then what I thought of it, but my first reaction when I saw the poster version at Wood Green was “bloody hell, they actually listened”.
The people they listened to, of course, were the likes of Maxwell Roberts and diamond geezer, long-term critics of the direction of the map’s design. Unfortunately, it seems that the public don’t agree: there’s been a wave of commentary asking for the Thames and, less vocally, fare zones to come back to the map, and now the Mayor has waded in, apparently dictating the return of the former.
To me, this is a shame. I can only assume the people making comments like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” have no memory; for example, zones weren’t on the pocket map before 2002, and until 1988 the Central and Northern lines were straight axes, anchoring the map. Going back further, Beck never had a single design. Instead, there was collection of principles that guided thirty years of experimentation, condensed into a final, longer-lasting design by Paul Garbutt, the unfairly-overlooked designer of map for some years from 1964.
The September map is a welcome return to minimalism.
Before the news of the map was everywhere, I showed the new pocket map to two groups of people at work. When given the map unprompted, neither could immediately identify any changes on it. Comparing with the March map, though, they noticed two things straight away: the lack of zonal information, and the lack of information boxes. The removal of the Thames was a distant third.
Ironically, it was the 2002 pocket map that introduced zonal shading that also had this information in its index. Anyone would think from some of the commentary that until then, people were regularly straying outside their zones, getting charged penalty fares. But no: most tourists stick to zones 1-2, and most Londoners repeat their commute with tedious regularity. Zone information is shown at stations, in the strip maps inside the trains, and on TfL’s online Journey Planner. It would be good to see the index carry zones, but they don’t need to be on the map.
(Why not? Well, look at the station name spacing on the new and old, especially at the top of the High Barnet and Cockfosters lines. The new map can align these with equal spacing; the old map, forced to make them align with zone boundaries, has ugly gaps forced onto it.)
Meanwhile, nobody has asked for the return of the information boxes, despite the fact that Beck’s second map (of 1934) was forced to carry a large red box informing people that they could take the escalator link from Bank to Monument. I really hope that TfL keep them off the map. (This one should need no explanation.)
So, unprompted, people don’t mention the Thames. Why is it such a touchstone, then, once people notice its absence? Perhaps it’s because, despite the fact it’s not in the six principles Roberts attributes to Beck early on in his excellent book on the diagram, the Thames has been on every map since the early 1930s. Boris says ”I hope Londoners will imagine the Thames in place until it reappears on the maps, and will not forget their beautiful river.” Hyperbolic, undoubtedly, but it seems (as so often) he may be tapping in to the public’s mood.
Of course, there’s still one bugbear for those hoping for an uncluttered map: the September design seems to prove that the excessively intrusive wheelchair blobs, cluttering the DLR and forcing strange station layouts as at Waterloo, are here to stay. Roberts puts better than I can the inanity that is labelling just one aspect of a journey - the entrance to platform section - while ignoring station interchanges, and other accessibility information. TfL put out a detailed and informative access guide. Why not promote this more heavily and lose the blobs? It seems that argument has been lost, though.
Perhaps the great hope for those who like the lack of clutter is that many of the smaller changes, such as the cull of airport-via-main-line icons, limited-availability junctions, alternative station interchanges and so on, may survive even the meddling of politicians and the public. I strongly suspect that this map was always meant to be a stopgap: taking the temperature of the public with the classic Circle and East London lines before a new design unrolls the former (to Hammersmith) and extends the latter (to Dalston, and south), and seeing what it was deemed necessary to put back. Sadly, it seems to be doomed to be remembered as a failure, when perhaps it really did succeed. Time will tell.