diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 08, 2022

A new Crossrail connection means a new tube map. It's already available at some stations, posted up on some platforms and updated in some trains. You can also download it as a pdf here, any time between now and next May when they release the next one.

People don't like it. They don't like the mess it's become and the way the information's displayed and the inadequacies of the design and the art on the cover and how it'd have Harry Beck spinning in his grave and how they could do better. They told me on Saturday when I tweeted a snapshot and it all kicked off. But many of the complaints weren't specifically related to the new map, just opinions engrained over time.

So is the new tube map genuinely worse than the last one? Let's apply some scientific analysis by measuring three variables - clump, squish and kink.

 clump: a measure of blobbiness 

Look at some of the big blobby clusters in zone 1.



clump(King's Cross)=3
clump(Euston)=4
clump(Liverpool Street)=5 

King's Cross's clump isn't actually too bad. To combine seven lines into just three blobs is very good going. But Euston is an unruly mess, technically four blobs for three lines (plus an extra finger pointing out to Euston Square). But it's the abomination at Liverpool Street that has the highest clump, a total of five, because this cluster now embraces two stations. Crossrail's platforms link Moorgate and Liverpool Street so we now have two blobs for the former and three for the latter, in a ridiculous spidery mess that's additionally ambiguous as to which station is which.

It doesn't help that there are three different kinds of blob - blue, white and non-step-free. TfL's insistence on distinguishing between three types of accessibility often makes clumpiness greater than it needs to be. Moorgate could easily be one blob otherwise and Liverpool Street two, but instead of three blobs we've ended up with five. Holborn and Warren Street, both with clump=1, are examples of how much simpler things can be when nothing's step-free. Even Bank/Monument (through a bit of judicious juggling) has managed to keep the clump for six lines down to 3.

Clump is also a function of time. Look what they've done to Paddington over the years.



At the turn of the century Paddington had 2 blobs. Ten years ago it had 3 blobs. Last week it had 5 blobs. Today it has 4 blobs.

clump(2000)=2
clump(2001)=2+1
clump(2009)=3
clump(2018)=4
clump(5/2022)=5
clump(11/2022)=4

Trying to depict a complex split-site station like Paddington is never easy. It got harder in 2009 when the Circle line was unlooped and it got harder still in 2018 when TfL Rail arrived on the upper platforms. Peak clump came in May this year with the opening of Crossrail, and clump has in fact decreased this week from 5 to 4 with the dawn of through-running. Again it doesn't help that all three kinds of blob are present, restricting possible combinations. But see how Paddington's long sprawl means the station's only named at one end, indeed anyone tracing along the Bakerloo line could very easily miss it.

And therein lies another problem.

 squish: a measure of ambiguity 

Looking along the Circle line at the bottom of this snippet, can you instantly say which station Westminster is?



If you know your tube stations you can, but the name 'Westminster' is also positioned immediately above St James's Park so it takes a bit of deduction to decide. Two clues - the bobble at St James's Park is pointing down, not up, and the station on the right only has one name next to it so must be Westminster. It's similar with Embankment and Temple, a moment of decoding is required.

[St James's Park ≈ Westminster]
[Embankment ≈ Temple]

But that was the poster version of the map where the designers have more space. The problem of squish is significantly worse on the smaller pocket version.



On the printed map the font size has to be larger compared to the thickness of the lines, so names often nudge even closer to a neighbouring station. Here Embankment and Temple are just as vague as before, but Victoria has now joined the St James's Park/Westminster squish combo.

[Victoria ≈ St James's Park ≈ Westminster]
[Embankment ≈ Temple]

The lack of space has also created a triple problem at Piccadilly Circus where Green Park and Leicester Square both squish in. Far worse is the Goodge Street/Tottenham Court Road dilemma. Both names are written equally close to the Crossrail blob, and only the tiny black notch on the left confirms that Goodge Street must be the station above.

[Green Park ≈ Leicester Square ≈ Piccadilly Circus]
[Goodge Street ≈ Tottenham Court Road]

Long station names can be particularly hard to locate unambiguously within a web of lines, especially when one of the words has a lot of letters. But even short names can suffer from squish if the designers have overreached themselves.



It's quite something when something as short as 'Bow Road' causes problems, but on the new pocket map it's very easily confused with an unnecessarily clumpy Mile End. The new Crossrail tunnel caused this graphical atrocity, plus slavish adherence to a rigid set of design rules.

[Stepney Green ≈ Mile End ≈ Bow Road ≈ Bow Church]

Trying to name a station on a map should never rely on solving a logic problem, but as more and more information is squeezed onto the tube map so the squish gets inexorably worse.

And there's more.

 kink: a measure of unstraightness 

On early Beck tube maps one aim was to keep lines as straight as practically possible. Edgware to Morden - straight line. Hounslow to Leicester Square - straight line. Watford Junction to Paddington - straight line. But as more and more has been shoehorned onto the tube map so keeping lines straight has become more problematic and the latest incarnation is the kinkiest yet. Look at the wiggly contortions of the Elizabeth line as it threads across London.



The purple line on the real map isn't as obvious as that, I've thickened it up to make the bendiness more obvious. But on the way from Reading and Heathrow to Abbey Wood and Shenfield the line bends an incredible 22 times!

kink(Elizabeth)=22

It's particularly bad on the stretch through central London where the designers have threaded it through the existing network like drunken embroidery. But the eastern branches also get to meander wildly because the DLR, the Thames and the cablecar keep getting in the way. You wouldn't think this was TfL's flagship railway, not with a kink of 22.

Kink also evolves over time, as here on the central section of the Central line.



The top strip shows the tube map 35 years ago with no bends anywhere from Ealing Broadway to Mile End. The second strip is the map from five years ago with an indentation at Bank. The third strip is from earlier this year with Crossrail forcing another bend at Marble Arch. And the final strip is from the current map with an additional mini-bump at Mile End. That's a lot of gratuitous changes of direction.

kink(1987)=0
kink(2017)=4
kink(5/2022)=6
kink(11/2022)=8

It's important to be objective, so I've calculated the kink for all the lines on the current tube map and for all the lines on the map 20 years ago.

2002  2022
kink(Bakerloo)=7
kink(Circle)=8
kink(Central)=13
kink(District)=12
kink(H&City)=8
kink(Jubilee)=9
kink(Metropolitan)=11  
kink(Northern)=12
kink(Piccadilly)=10
kink(Victoria)=7
kink(W&City)=2
kink(DLR)=10
kink(East London)=1
 kink(Bakerloo)=7
kink(Circle)=10
kink(Central)=15
kink(District)=13
kink(H&City)=4
kink(Jubilee)=13
kink(Metropolitan)=11  
kink(Northern)=21
kink(Piccadilly)=18
kink(Victoria)=7
kink(W&City)=3
kink(DLR)=13
kink(Overground)=51
kink(Elizabeth)=22
kink(Trams)=12
kink(Thameslink)=54

The Bakerloo, Metropolitan and Victoria lines still have the same kink as 20 years ago, so that's a win. The Circle line's only kinkier because it's got longer. The Central, District, Jubilee and Waterloo & City lines have only got marginally kinkier. The Hammersmith & City line's kink has actually halved because the designers have made it the baseline of the current map. The two whose kink has significantly increased are the Northern and Piccadilly lines, thanks especially to overmeandering round Hounslow and the chaotic intrusion of Battersea.

But the real change comes from non-tube additions to the tube map. They're really bendy because the designers had to work round what was already here, indeed the Overground and Thameslink contribute over 100 new kinks between them. This is why the tube map looks so messy, not just more stuff crammed on but more ugly distracting bends all over.

kink(2002)=110 
kink(2022)=274 

So clump has increased, squidge has multiplied and kink has more than doubled, and that's why the tube map's less functional than it used to be. It's not just a subjective opinion, we have the maths to prove it.


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