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Seeds of current subway map date back decades

Arline Bronzaft served on a committee that helped shape today's subway map. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

It was a dash of Italian style for gritty New York, with the 1972 subway map being so fashionable, that it became the pattern for designer dresses.

But a tourist map, it was not.

“It was a beautiful and attractive map. But it didn’t tell you anything about New York,” said Peter Lloyd, a British author writing the first chronicle of the city subway map.

Today’s map—along with the entire color scheme of the train lines—was born out of a revolt from the 1972 diagram. Italian designer Massimo Vignelli fashioned that map to bring a dash of style to the subway, and eliminate the clutter and confusion of the previous map.

“I think it’s an absolute masterpiece. It made things as clear as possible,” said Yoshiki Waterhouse, a designer who worked with Vignelli.

But the map included no geographic symbols, and New Yorkers didn’t take to its representation of Central Park as a square. In a small survey, less than half of the subjects could use it to plot direct train routes.

“It was the 1970s. People were fearful of going on the subways,” said Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist who tested the map on riders. “We wanted people to use the map to see the sights of New York.”

In 1976, a committee began overhauling the map, with parks, museums and blue water added for the first time. The lines were grouped into 11 colors, which the MTA had considered doing for decades but shelved because of costs. Staten Island was included, and mapmakers had to squish the boroughs to cram them onto the page.

“If it fit, we put it in,” said Michael Hertz, a New York designer whose firm made the new map.

In an unprecedented twist, the public was invited to comment on the map, with 3,000 riders submitting responses. A second version of the design was a hit, and the public snapped up 5,000 copies in an hour when the MTA unveiled it at Grand Central Terminal in 1979.

“Not all the news about the New York subways is bad,” the New York Times wrote. “(The MTA) produced a readable subway map.”

The MTA forked over $1 million to install new color-coded signs throughout the system to match the map, Lloyd said. The map celebrated its 30th birthday last year, with very few additions made since.

“It’s an absolute work of art and very clear,” Lloyd said.

Map facts
- A test version of the new map had all the lines in red, which the public loathed

- Individual train lines were originally on the back instead of the regional rail lines

- Early editions of the map could be folded just to display Manhattan

- Designers chose primary colors for the lines based on some of the tones used in the Vignelli map

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