Every city, in every country on the globe, has its own type of metro map design. Each one shows the routes that make up the vital arteries of a city. Each is different, and each displays a fascinating variety of information that makes them unique to that particular city. Metro maps can differ for reasons as diverse as local culture, typography, or simply just because of geography.
These metro maps help us explore these differences and help us to explore the city, too. Those interested in graphic design can also learn about way finding graphics while studying these maps.
These maps are all unique and often are so well designed they can be classified as works of art. Before we look at some of the most fascinating metro maps from around the world, let’s look a little closer at what makes a great subway map.
Learn below more about metro maps in this article created by our team at MapSVG.
The Science of a Great Subway Map
In 1972, Massimo Vignelli designed what is perhaps the most famous version of the New York City subway map. Its modernist design focused on clarity and ease of use over realism and geographical precision.
It displayed lines as running either vertically or horizontally and clearly defined the otherwise cluttered areas of city routes. Central Park was square, for example. After intense public pressure, however, the maps were quickly redesigned to a more precise, if less clear style.
Map designers have a difficult job. Transit maps must be clear and easy to understand at a glance. They also cannot rely on language, as tourists make up a huge percentage of the users. Also, most travelers don’t have time to work out and absorb a map so they can use it.
For this reason, the debate on what type of map design is best has raged on for decades. Is a more abstract but easier to read map preferable to a geographically accurate one? There is seemingly no obvious answer. But each city around the world has its own answer to this question. From this comes a multitude of interesting map designs that tell us much about not just the routes of the cities, but the attitudes of the cities themselves.
23 of the Most Interesting Subway Maps
1. Paris, France
This densely packed network covers only 40 square miles with 132 miles of tracks and 245 stations. This map is vital for navigating the complicated Paris Metro network.
2. London, UK
This is perhaps the most famous and recognizable subway map in the world. Harry Beck designed the London Tube Map and was a forerunner in the use of modernist design principles in public information displays. While it is geographically inaccurate, this map takes one of the oldest subway systems in the world and makes it simple to navigate.
3. Tokyo, Japan
As one of the most punctual subway systems in the world, the Tokyo metro is easy to navigate even with the language barrier. While the design seems complex at first, the punctuality of the trains keeps the process simple.
4. Berlin, Germany
Berlin follows London’s lead in its use of a geographically inaccurate subway map. Researchers from MIT discovered that sharper turns and lines are easier to follow.
5. Rome, Italy
The subway in Rome is the oldest of its kind in Italy. Its 73 stations span over 37.3 miles, and many thousands rely on it every day.
6. Mexico City, Mexico
This subway is an example of when geographic accuracy can work well. This is because the Mexico City subway is much smaller than the other examples here. This enables it to use a much more intricate map design without losing clarity.
7. Madrid, Spain
This large and sprawling subway system is typical of other capital cities across Europe and the world. It follows the modernist design principles of London’s map and makes great use of a soft color palette, thin lines, and white spaces to keep the map uncluttered and visually clear.
8. Brussels, Belgium
This metro map uses two languages – French and Flemish. As these are both common languages in Belgium, it makes the map simple for speakers of either language.
9. Rio de Janieiro, Brazil
This huge subway network carries more than one million passengers daily. It was expanded ahead of the Olympics and can now carry even more. Its map reflects this usage and keeps to a simple design.
10. Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok has a uniquely beautiful metro map. It resembles a plaid shirt, with its soft colors and transparent rivers and streets which keep the underground locations relative to the aboveground geography.
11. Melbourne, Australia
While the map is still in the concept phase of its redesign, it is clear that a clean, modern design will most likely be used. The lines all extend separately from a central meeting point.
12. Boston, USA
Home to Tremont Street Subway – the oldest underground railway tunnel in North America having opened in 1897 – Boston uses a mixture of modernist design and geographical accuracy. The clean, straight lines are overlaid on a transparent map of the geography of the area, including waterfronts.
13. Montreal, Canada
The Montreal subway has just four lines running through its small network. This makes reading the map simple, especially with its clean design. The black background makes the colorful lines pop.
14. New York, USA
Many artists have taken on the task of designing and redesigning the famous NYC transit map. Most famously, Massimo Vignelli created a simple, modern map that was based on logical clarity rather than geographical accuracy. The complexity of the New York subway network means that this is almost a necessity.
15. Glasgow, Scotland
This unique map is as simple as it gets. Designed in a simple oval shape, this map benefits from being based on a very small subway network. Glasgow’s subway is one of the oldest in the world, having opened in 1896.
16. Amsterdam, Netherlands
A great example of a subway map complementing the feel of the city. The Amsterdam subway map uses a green and blue geometric design to complement the topography of the city. It balances nature and human-made design in a way that is characteristic of the city.
17. Chicago, USA
The “L” – elevated transit system – of Chicago is not a subway, but an overhead rail system. Nevertheless, it serves the same purpose and utilizes a map very similar to many subway systems, with its modernist design and simple lines.
18. Washington D.C., USA
This vibrant and purposeful subway map uses colors and icons that pop out at the viewer to indicate transfers, stations, and points of interest. A wonderful design that combines a multitude of design ideas into one.
19. Sydney, Australia
In Sydney, the design of the subway map is famous for resembling a bird flying into the Pacific. Modernist design sensibilities are on show as the graphics reflect the coastal nature of the city.
20. San Francisco, USA
This map is another example of an interesting combination of modernist design and geographical accuracy. It maintains a simplicity without being disconnected from the geography of San Francisco. It’s even able to depict extra information such as nearby mountains and bodies of water that help to maintain orientation.
21. Lisbon, Portugal
The subway map of Lisbon employs a more fluid, creative approach to the design. This is very much in keeping with the culture of the city itself. The combination of icons and imagery along the path of the subway add a storytelling element to the design of the map.
22. Stuttgart, Germany
Uniquely, Stuttgart’s subway map does not use a bird’s eye view as most other subway maps tend to do. However, its straight lines make navigating between stops simple.
23. Moscow, Russia
Taking inspiration from the classic London Underground map, the Moscow subway map is immediately eye-catching. Its circular lines and simple design make navigating the city a simple process.
24. Seoul, South Korea
25. Frankfurt, Germany
Metro Maps – Unique to Every City
As we’ve seen in this list, metro maps tend to be unique to the city they made for. While there are often similarities in design philosophy, it is perhaps inevitable that the individual culture of an area will influence the design of a subway map.
The most crucial aspect of any subway map is to be easily readable in as short a time as possible. Commuters, travelers, and tourists rarely have the time to work out how to use and read a subway map. Therefore, it is vital that they are easy to read and if possible beautiful to look at.
Hopefully, this list of the 23 most interesting metro maps will give you an insight into the design process of these important assets.
If you liked this article about funny maps, you should also check out this article with map illustration examples.
We also wrote about a few related subjects like the map elements, map vector, what is a vector map, interactive maps, the choropleth map and how to make one, thematic map examples, statistical maps, and all the types of maps out there.
I take it you like maps as well so make sure to check out MapSVG, a great WordPress maps plugin you should check out.