diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sorry, I'm running a bit behind schedule here. But the arrival of the Night Tube also means the launch of a brand new tube map. Hurrah?

Most of the first media outlets to report this news on Monday had in fact got excited by the old night tube map, originally released in 2013, which had been attached to their press release by mistake. They'd then cut and pasted a selection of TfL's spoonfed sentences into their news articles and pressed publish, because that's modern journalism, before swiftly updating their articles with the new Night Tube map later in the morning. It's the official Night Tube map, as seen below, and I wonder what you think.

It's certainly pretty. The two-tone blue background looks rather swish, and provides a recognisably different design to the ordinary daytime map. It's easy to imagine this map in poster form adding a bit of class to a nightclub wall or a student's bedroom. There are far fewer lines than on the ordinary tube map, so the whole thing looks more like a transport network and less like a bowl of spaghetti. It doesn't have an advert for a credit card slapped across the bottom of it, at least not yet, or for some other big name brand that fancies buying nocturnal streetcred. And who wouldn't love the cute owl logo that's been created to give the Night Tube its own identity? I fear that at some point it may be given a name, but this is surely an image destined for stacked shelves of mugs, t-shirts and sofa cushions.

And yet the key test of a tube map isn't how well it sells, but how well it works, and the Night Tube map doesn't appear to have been designed with usability at the top of the agenda. In particular, consider the choice of colours for the background. Two not very different shades of blue make it anything but easy to distinguish the boundary between, say, zones 2 and 3. More importantly, two not very different shades of blue make it bloody difficult to distinguish the lines themselves. The Piccadilly is a dark blue line on a dark blue background, and virtually invisible. The Northern is a black line on a dark blue background, and almost as unseen. The Jubilee and Victoria lines are brighter, although are from the same colour palette as the background so not as contrasty as they could be. Of the five Night Tube lines only the Central truly stands out, indeed even the River Thames is markedly more obvious than the other four.

But then I've been looking at the map on my laptop, where it's quite small. View the map instead at its largest resolution and each line is edged by a strip of white, which makes everything much easier to see. When this map is printed at full poster size and stuck up in a frame at a station, it should be relatively straight-forward to follow the lines and trace a route. Indeed there's a hint here that the map has been designed by someone with a big screen, to whom everything would always have looked fine and dandy. But below a certain resolution the white borders shrink away to insignificance, and the darker lines almost merge with the dark background. One can only hope that there aren't millions of excessively-blue Night Tube maps printed and ready to go at the same scale as the existing folded tube map, because at that size they'll likely be unnecessarily difficult to read.

And then there's the font. On a normal tube map the font size has to be small, otherwise you couldn't squeeze in the station names between the tangle of lines. On the Night Tube map there's a lot more space, because more than half of TfL's lines don't appear, but still the same tiny font size has been used. I'm sure there's room for larger and more legible station names, which for anyone long-sighted would be enormously helpful, but instead the designers have matched the same size font as the daytime map and so the visually-deficient will have to squint. They've also insisted on keeping the same kinks as the daytime map, even when there's nothing in the way. The Central line for example bends unnecessarily towards Bank, and then incorporates another twist west of Bond Street that's only existed on the actual tube map for a month. This in particular could have been straightened out, providing a useful stylistic straight line across the centre of the map. But instead the Night Tube map merely mimics the daytime layout, incorporating its less than ideal features in an attempt to be consistent.

Another feature that's been copied, this time for entirely understandable reasons, is the presence of accessibility blobs to show stations with step-free access. There aren't many of these on the Night Tube, indeed on the Central line only two step-free journeys will be possible, namely from Stratford to Woodford or Hainault. What blobs there are appear in two colours, with white blobs for step-free access from street to platform and blue blobs for step-free access from street to train. The white blobs appear most clearly on the blue background, but alas it's the blue blobs that represent gold standard access, and they're by far the harder to distinguish. On the brighter side, non-step-free interchanges stand out rather better, and they make up three-quarters of the dozen interchanges on the Night Tube.

I thought I'd finish by presenting a Night Tube map of my own. I don't claim it'd be any use for navigation, but it does depict the network's topological information in a much more geographical way. What I've done is to count up the number of Night Tube stations in every London borough, and hopefully got the totals approximately right, then shaded the map accordingly. Now at last you can see where the Night Tube actually goes, and where it actually doesn't.

The three most fortunate nocturnal boroughs are Westminster and Camden, as you might expect, and Redbridge, which you might not. TfL have been very kind to Redbridge and agreed to service both sides of the Hainault Loop, admittedly only every 20 minutes, but lucky them. Ealing and Lambeth also do well, in each case because two Night Tube lines pass through the borough giving fairly decent coverage. East London does less well than west, this because the District line and DLR aren't yet on board, and North London does better than south, but then 'twas always thus. Hackney and Greenwich do particularly badly, each with only one overnight station tucked away on the very edge of the borough, which means night buses for the majority. And an entire arc of Outer London from Richmond round to Romford gets nothing at all. To be fair, most of these zero-scoring boroughs have no Underground during the day either, but something's certainly awry when Essex gets two Night Tube stations and Lewisham gets none. I should at this point also mention Thameslink, which already runs early hours trains every morning except Sundays, so technically Croydon's not as disconnected as it looks.

Things will eventually change. If the London Overground comes on board in 2017 as planned then cross-capital coverage will greatly improve. The eventual addition of the DLR will help to fill in some obvious gaps in east and southeast London, although this can't happen before 2021 when the current franchise expires. The sub-surface lines may follow after that, although if you live in Pinner or Upminster don't hold your breath. And the Bakerloo line probably won't join the overnight party until twenty thirty something, but if you look at my map of existing geographical coverage you'll see that's not necessarily a critical loss. At least when it does finally arrive the brown should show up properly on the official Night Tube map... assuming they haven't ditched the over-dark-blue background by then.

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