Thames & Tube

I’ve had such a busy week I haven’t had the time to report on one on this week’s best map-related story. “Mild furore” was the way the rumours started to spread in the twittersphere and blogospehere early Monday and by Tuesday had spread to mainstream news and resulted in a U-turn by Wednesday.

What am I talking about? The decision to remove the River Thames (and the ‘zones’) from the London Underground map.

Npw you see it:
tuberiver

Now you don’t:
londonnoriver

Let’s start by talking about rivers: rivers aren’t just a place where water slows, they’re a geogrphical feature of the landscape. In a city where you have a river – especcially where it’s a large river – it’s an essemtial means of orientating yourself: am I north, south, east, west, close to the river, far away, where is it in relation to me… In London there’s the added “norf/sarf” dimension – people who have strong views on which side of the river is best to live (before you ask i’m a north of the river person). The river not only flows through the city but flows through it’s history. It’s shaped the city physically more than any other feature.

So the decision to remove it from the tube map shows an ignorance of how people interract with space. What’s the purpose of the tube map? You look at it to work out where you’re going to, and where you’re coming from. How do you orientate yourself with a) no index, b) no zones and c) no river unless you already know exactly on the map where your station is? And if you do why look at it?

Of course TfL had a point the the map had become cluttered and they were reverting to the purpose of Harry Beck’s original. And there are other arguments for the sudden evaporation of the Thames: the underground map is schematic (it doesn’t represent geographical reality), and when you’re underground it really doesn’t metter where the river actually is.

Harry Beck redesigned the map from the spaghetti scrawl that existed before into something that mis-represented geography but – more importantly – into something which easilly showed lines and connections so people could see where they’re going to, and from, easilly. But it’s removal shows a misconception of the Underground map as art, rather than a functional information-giving tool.

__________

Further reading: Mark Easton’s fantastic blog this week looks at rivers on underground maps around the world. Ianvisits found historical film footage which provided an interesting theory on why the Thames may have been drained.

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