For some people, the Tube map is the map of London. The network’s north London bias is almost certainly a big reason why, until relatively recently, south London remained terra incognita to many, and the Overground’s extension to such exotic destinations as Brockley and Peckham has transformed our mental map of the city. If I could tell my younger self that the dull stretch of suburban National Rail I took to school would one day appear on the actual, proper map, then my younger self would, frankly, have been far more excited about this revelation than it actually deserved.
So the latest edition of the map, which includes the full cross-London Thameslink route for the first time, will no doubt be delighting kids just as cool as I was across the city today. Its inclusion, in a fetching pink-and-white candy stripe, means that a whole host of north and south London suburbs are on the map for the first time. Cricklewood! Catford! Bromley! Sutton! It would be a great day – if only the map wasn’t so utterly horrible.
This, to be fair, is hardly Thameslink’s fault. Once a design classic, the map has been ugly, and getting uglier, for a while. The rot started to set in with the baffling decision to show the fare zones using a series of irregular grey polygons that make it look like the familiar shape of the Tube network had been painted against the backdrop of the sort of artwork you’d find lining the corridors of a Gatwick Airport hotel sometime in the late 1980s.
But the bigger problem is that Transport for London have thrown more and more services onto the map without any apparent consideration for what it might need to change in order to accommodate them. Most of the map is still given over to the northern half of London, even though a growing share of the services it shows (the Overground, Tramlink, now Thameslink) are south of the river.
In the same way, the Tube map’s origins as a map of, well, the Tube has given it a west London bias, too. In the real world, Cockfosters is slightly to the west of the geographical centre of London. On the map, it’s well to the east, meaning that the tangle of Overground lines in and around Hackney have ended up crunched into far less space than they should be.
Yet, despite this decision to dedicate most of the map to west London, even though it’s all but universally agreed to be the worst bit, the contemporary Tube map still struggles to fit in the western arm of TfL Rail, which turns sharply upwards somewhere around West Drayton thus giving the impression that Reading is a southern suburb of Uxbridge. Which it isn’t.
There’s another, more philosophical problem with the modern Tube map: what’s it for?
For a long time, the answer would have been obvious: the Tube map showed all the train services branded as London Underground. But in recent years its coverage has expanded to include other basically train-shaped things run by TfL, and now, with the addition of Thameslink, basically train-shaped things not run by TfL, too.
But it doesn’t show anything close to all of these. Quality of service doesn’t explain the decision to include Thameslink alone: many of its suburban branches are depressingly infrequent, while other, more frequent, national rail routes still aren’t shown. Neither, really, does usefulness. Okay, it’s quite handy being able to see that you can get a direct train across town from Elephant & Castle to West Hampstead, but the map still suggests that anyone wanting to get from Wimbledon to Waterloo should spend three weeks on the District line before changing at Westminster, rather than jumping on any of the dozen fast and direct trains an hour.
The result of all this is that the inclusion of a line on the Tube map no longer tells you very much: it doesn’t tell you that it’s run by TfL as a public service, it does nothing to communicate whether the average gap between trains will be 90 seconds or 30 minutes, and I wouldn’t mind any of that if only it was still a design classic which it very obviously isn’t. It’s rubbish.
A lot of the problems with the map seem to stem from the same source: that incremental change has been laid upon incremental change, fare zones and extra lines and street-level interchanges and on and on, until what was clean and beautiful is now an ugly mess.
So the solution seems obvious: rather than scribbling endlessly on its existing map, TfL should start from scratch with a blank page. Perhaps Cockfosters should be more central. Perhaps the three West Hampstead stations, which are pretty much adjacent in reality, should be made so on the map, rather than connected by a dotted line several light years in length. Perhaps, on reflection, cartographers will even realise that the question of whether Stratford is in zone 2, 3, or 2 and 3 is not the main thing that most passengers actually need to know about Stratford. I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.
Before it can do that, though, TfL should decide exactly what the Tube map is for. Despite the name, it is no longer there purely to map the Tube; but neither is it showing only TfL services, or only high frequency ones. For decades now, London has had both a Tube map, and a Tube and rail one. The more and more crowded the former becomes, the more it seems worth asking – do we really need both?
After all, if the Tube map is London, doesn’t all of London deserve to be on there?
Jonn Elledge is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.
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