A Circular Subway Map?

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article


In December 2012, the final section of London’s new inner suburban circular railway opened, and a number of designers proposed maps using concentric circles in order to emphasize the new orbital connections. Unfortunately, these generally grafted circles onto standard schematic map rules: horizontal and vertical straight lines, and 45-degree diagonals. From the point of view of a circle, there is nothing special about these angles, and the results generally suffered from having elements that related to each other poorly.

The most effective way to relate concentric circles to straight lines is to use spokes and tangents. Thus was born my “Circles Tube Map,” which immediately went viral on the internet. Many found the concept too alien, but others were mesmerized by its unearthly charm, totally unlike any Underground map seen before.

I had intended “Circles Tube Map” as a playful exploration rather than an improvement in usability, but the positive response caused me to rethink. The design lost points for simplicity—its lines twisting and turning with many unavoidable corners—but the payback was a massive gain in coherence; the way in which the elements of a map holistically relate to each other, ideally giving the result clear shape.

New York is the ninth destination in my world tour of circles maps. This should not even have been attempted: How can a grid city with no real orbital component to its rail network be remotely compatible with these design rules? The surprise is that, having identified a suitable point of origin, and apart from a few awkward locations, the map falls into place neatly. People may object to its aesthetics, and geographical purists will dislike it in the same way that they distrust all highly schematized designs, but its overall power is harder to dispute—the result of forcing the New York subway into an unprecedented level of organization. Usability studies will commence later this year.