Around one year ago, I came across Mark Ovenden's 'London Underground By Design' in a Tokyo bookshop.
For the first time, it opened my eyes to the rich history of design to be found in my hometown. While living there I'd experienced it daily and never really appreciated it, but after leaving London I can now see it differently.
Tokyo has a subway system to rival any in the world, yet there are some clear differences in design between it and London. I'd like to explore and compare these two systems.
The London Underground, or Tube as it's affectionately known, is the oldest underground train system in the world. It opened in 1863, predating the Paris Métro by 37 years. (By comparison, the Tokyo Underground Railway debuted in 1927.)
For the first 45 years of its life, the network consisted of individual, competing lines. What maps were actually produced at the time were big, unwieldly geographical maps with the lines crudely overlayed.
While these maps served their basic purpose of marking each station and their relative positions, they were hardly kind to the user. Furthermore, because of the competition between railway operators, rival lines were grudgingly added with smaller lines, or sometimes omitted completely! This is something we'll go back to later.
1902 saw the merger of several railway companies, and in 1908 the first joint Underground map was published. This marked the start of an intensive period of expansion for the Underground network, reaching further out of central London and increasing usage.
Until 1933, the maps would follow the same basic design principles:
- Each line has its own colour.
- Geographical overlay (although street layouts became less prominent and were eventually removed by 1920).
Bend it like Harry Beck
Harry Beck was a temporarily employed engineer's draughtsman, who for around two weeks' wages, created a new design for the London Underground map based on electrical circuit diagrams.
Inspired by circuit diagrams, Beck redesigned the map based on the following:
- Except for the River Thames, all geographical features were removed.
- Lines were redrawn on straight lines, bending only in 45° or 90° angles.
- Stations were spaced evenly, based on readability and not distance.
- Station names and references were put in a sans-serif typeface for readability.
Beck's 1933 map instantly received a positive reaction and with updates for new stations and lines, the Beck's design principles have been maintained until the current day.
This revolutionary design has influenced many other transport systems around the world and moreover, it has become the definitive guideline for usability in transport design.
So, what about Tokyo?
With 3.16 billion annual rides (8.7 million daily), Tokyo has the busiest subway system in the world.
It has grown from the current Ginza Line completed in 1927 to serve the world's busiest metropolitan area with 13 lines.
Tokyo is currently in much the same situation as the early London Underground. It is made up the private Tokyo Metro and public Toei Subway, and certain lines run directly into suburban overground railway lines.
While the network is deeply integrated, both operators maintain their brand identity, which is reflected in and reinforce by their map design.
The Metro system labels each station with a line initial and station number (Tokyo is M17), however no such labels appear on the Toei map. Metro's map maintains the 45°/90° line, but Toei opts for a rounded curve.
Furthermore, each operator's map superimposes their lines over the others, as if they were physically jostling for superiority.
This raises an important question: since the Tokyo subway network is made up of these seperate entities, should they aim for a universal map or not? Would it even be helpful to unify their cartographical efforts?
In practical terms, ownership of lines is not especially important. Most important of all are 'where am I?' and 'how do I get to X?'
In the maps above, Tokyo station appears at the center of each map. In the Tokyo Metro map on the left, the station label is in bold text, larger than any other on the map.
Yet in the Toei map to the right, it barely stands out.
The confusion is further compounded by the addition of JR's overground railway lines, which are yet another part of Tokyo's intricate fabric. Again the maps differ in how to render the JR lines that snake through the city.
London hosted the 2012 Olympics, and Tokyo was confirmed last year as the 2020 hosts. In both cities, helping overseas visitors navigate the city to access the venues is a priority.
Tokyo has confirmed the construction of new venues in the east of the city, with new stations and possibly line extensions to back-up the new infrastructure.
Perhaps a new unified subway map could be one answer to many people's worries that first-time visitors will be overwhelmed by the Japanese capital's underground network. Ironing out the idiosyncracies in map design and creating a standard line-number designation are just two possible steps Tokyo could take to make the Olympics proceed as smoothly as possible.