London 2012: Underground

by Joe Peach

The map of London’s underground network is truly iconic. Designed in 1931 by London Underground employee Harry Beck, it sacrifices geographical accuracy for a diagrammatic approach, with strict design rules, flexible with the geographical truth, transforming a potentially sprawling and confusing transit map into a logical and almost immediately understandable urban utility.

However, as London’s underground network ages and continues to carry millions of passengers every day, the true cost of sacrificing geographical accuracy is becoming more obvious. Beck used straight lines in place of the city’s snaking routes, and almost equidistant spacing between stations when some are strangely close to one another. The end result is that many London Underground users change lines to reach their destination when walking would be much quicker, or take routes that appear shortest on the map, but in fact aren’t the most speedy option.

Until recently, Transport for London (TfL) – the government body responsible for the underground network – has not considered this much of an issue. Sure, they encouraged app development by releasing data from the network to developers at no cost, but the underground map and all related signage have remained largely the same. Until now.

With millions of visitors in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the city’s transport network is under more pressure than ever before. If you want to head to the Olympics, chances are you’ll get the next tube to Stratford, even though there are countless other stations that link to Olympic sites. Aware of the challenges of dealing with millions of extra riders, most of whom won’t be local and will be relying on geographically flawed signage for directions, TfL have made some temporary updates.

Route maps on underground carriages, like the one pictured above, are now littered with pink boxes pointing out which stations can be used to access Olympic events. This photo shows what you’ll find if you take the Jubilee Line, and London’s 12 other lines are all looking pretty similar. Though relatively minor additions, they represent a pretty radical development for a map that has barely changed its visual approach in eight decades.

If pink isn’t your favourite colour, probably best to find another transport option for the next few weeks as the new signage doesn’t stop there. Previously, on your way out from an underground station you could be greeted by multiple possible exits. These exists are either numbered or differentiated by the road they exit onto, but for a visitor to the city with one thing on their mind, this information is not enough. So the pink boxes are put to use once again, plastering walls with their straightforward directions to those key places TfL knows you are heading.

If, like many of the locals, you are refraining from looking up to avoid making eye contact with your fellow travellers (awkward), the floor is also your friend for the next few weeks. Pink circles clearly pointing out which direction you need to go in have become a common site on the ground at some of the city’s larger stations.

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world, and as a result many stations are named after once-significant local features (in fact, much of London is named after once-significant local features). The effect of this is the present-day destinations they largely exist to serve rarely get prominent placement on signage, with obvious potential for confusion among travellers. Though investment in technology and improved infrastructure is critical for the London Underground to remain efficient (and TfL is doing both of these things), improving the design of the network’s wayfinding tools also plays a key role. A truly smart city is one where citizens and visitors are well-informed, and with London rethinking its underground map and signage, it creeps one step closer to being just that – a smart city.

Images courtesy of DaxisTrowbridge Estate and tompagenet on flickr

Olympic Cities is a collaboration between London-based website This Big City, and Future Cape Town, running alongside the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games from 27 July to 12 August 2012.