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Once upon a time, London’s tube map looked like, well, a map, with street names and geographical accuracy and all that jazz. But then, a young draughtsman named Harry Beck realised that, when you’re underground, geography doesn’t matter: all you need to know is the order of the stations and where the lines connect. So he redesigned the map using straight lines and even spacing, thus making it both prettier and more comprehensible. Every other rail network in the world copied him and the rest is history.
This story is one with which anyone interested in London, its transport or the principles of graphic design will be familiar. It is, however, one that Transport for London seems to have forgotten, because the modern tube map is messy, confusing and getting worse.
The inclusion of the Elizabeth line, approximately 5,000 years after construction began, is only the latest indignity. The fact it’s currently three lines, not one, is an unfortunate necessity that should be fixed by the autumn, when they finally join up. But the decision to show it as ugly hollow blue tram lines, rather than a solid block of the lilac used in every other aspect of the line’s branding, is a choice, and a baffling one.
Paddington is shown as five different stations, in a gallant but migraine-inducing attempt to show which platforms are accessible. So is the Liverpool Street-Moorgate complex, now connected by both Circle line and a new Crossrail station called, simply and annoyingly, “Liverpool Street”. (Farringdon Crossrail is not shown connecting to Barbican, even though it does.)
Meanwhile, Thameslink is still on the map in its entirety, even though some of its branches get barely two trains an hour, necessitating yet another style, a sort of hatched pink. (Why this, and not more frequent and useful links like Waterloo to Wimbledon?)
Worst of all, the fare zones are still shown, pointlessly, in a variety of greys, making the whole thing look like it belongs not in a transport network but on the walls of a hotel by a motorway service station some time in the 1980s. It’s awful.
There are plenty of gorgeous amateur maps floating around the internet showing that it can still be done: strikingly, though, these mostly involve starting from scratch, rather than trying to squeeze yet more lines into a pre-existing design. The official map should do the same.
Somewhere in TfL, there’s a budding Harry Beck just itching to tear the whole thing down and start again. Your city needs you.