Improving the design of metro maps

Peter B. Lloyd, a PhD student at the University of Kent, details how a collaborative project between the universities of Kent and Essex is finding ways to recognise navigational problems and improve the usability of metro maps.


A subway map is not just a tool for finding directions; it is an invitation to use the subway and a reassurance that it is safe and understandable. The U.S. Department of Transport recognised this at the end of the 1970s and recommended that the map should be part of a transit company’s marketing, but it is only in the last decade that researchers have started to discover what makes a subway map usable.

A group of Italian researchers confirmed the theory that many people prefer to use automobiles over subways, even when there are clear benefits in terms of time and cost in catching the subway train1. Travellers have their own personal reasons for their transportation choices, sometimes straightforward and sometimes subtle. But there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence proving that travellers can be deterred from using rapid transit because subway maps are sometimes hard to understand.

Transit blogger Cameron Booth has a ‘hall of shame’ in which he presents his own selection of the world’s worst transportation maps2. Many of us have experienced being baffled by subway maps, taking longer than necessary to work out a route, being misled into longer routes than necessary, missing connections or ending up in the wrong place altogether. Several websites have rankings of the most confusing subway maps in the world.

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