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Starts & Stops

T’s subway maps, putting form before function, may not help commuters navigate the world above

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 27, 2009

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Say you’re visiting Boston, or don’t go downtown much. You’ve spent the day at the aquarium and need to get to the Red Line on the T. But how?

If you look at the MBTA map, you might be tempted to hop on the Blue Line, switch trains at State Street to the Orange Line, and then switch lines again at Downtown Crossing. Or you could take the Blue Line to Government Center, switch to the Green Line, and then switch again to the Red Line at Park Street.

This would be, of course, a waste of time. It takes more time to type these instructions than to walk from the aquarium to Downtown Crossing. (The walk is about 12 minutes, according to Google Maps. And I’m a slow typist.)

In the subway, you’d spend most of your time wandering through fetid tunnels and waiting on platforms, missing out on a tour through one of the most historic neighborhoods within the nation’s most historic city.

So how did this happen? How did your trusty map deceive you?

Boston’s newest transit map, introduced last week, is a nice improvement over the old one, with key bus lines represented for the first time and a more accurate commuter rail network depicted. But it shares a design quirk with older MBTA maps and transit maps around the globe: It has only a passing resemblance to the world above.

Rather than designed to scale, most subway maps are stylized, intended to show the order of the stations and where the lines crisscross. Downtown Crossing and Park Street are about a block from each other. But on the map, they appear farther apart than Andrew station is from JFK/UMass station, an actual distance of nearly a mile.

Likewise, the new T map shows South Station on the wrong side of Fort Point Channel, in South Boston rather than at the edge of downtown.

Transit maps are a battleground between graphic artists and engineers - pitting readability against fealty to precise facts on the ground, according to Nigel Wilson, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Transit Research Program.

“They tilt toward the readability, sort of graphic artist influence, versus the engineer,’’ Wilson said.

He has been doing research with the London Underground for more than four years, and has found passengers frequently choose their path based on the stylized maps in the stations rather than actual distances.

Erik Scheier, the MBTA project director for operations, acknowledged the T’s map is not a map in the traditional sense.

“We call them maps, but it’s really more of a diagram,’’ Scheier explained.

The basic scheme for the MBTA spider map, as it is known internally, dates to the 1960s, when the T hired a graphic design firm, which gave the subway lines their modern color designations, Scheier said.

The author of “Transit Maps of the World,’’ a collection of old and new designs, praises the original MBTA spider map for “stylish and elegant’’ simplicity, calling the rendering “a classic of its time in the States.’’

But the T was not the first to tackle the basic problem. The template for the modern subway map was developed in London in 1933, by Harry Beck, according to James R. Akerman in “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World.’’

London, like Boston, has a subway with stations farther apart in the suburbs and closer together in the urban core.

“If the guide maps were to show the full extent of these lines on a constant scale, the great mass of routes that converged on and snaked through central London and Westminster had to be so compressed as to make the names of the stations and the courses of the line indecipherable,’’ wrote Akerman.

So Beck shortened suburban distances, lengthened downtown distances, and straightened the lines to create a more streamlined map.

The result became a world-famous icon of London, and a model for subways from Rotterdam to Guangzhou. But not everyone is a fan.

“Just showing the subway and what the relationship is from one stop to the next, that in many ways makes the subway map very comprehensible,’’ said Ronald E. Grim, curator of maps at the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. “But I find it, I guess, annoying that you don’t see what’s underground in relationship to what’s above ground.’’

For a true street-level understanding of Boston, Scheier recommends consulting the neighborhood maps at station entrances that show a quarter-mile radius around each station. These maps, which are also being updated, are not available at all stations yet, but the T is working on rectifying that over the next two years as part of an overall project to improve mapping in the system, he said.

Passengers can also get more detailed maps from station attendants, showing a street map of Greater Boston with every bus line and T stop. But they often run out fast, Scheier said.

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In last week’s column, I misspelled Wayland resident David Moran’s name. I apologize.