Map Critique – Grade Separated Cities

New York is a vertical city. Expansive growth and the unique situation of the city’s central business districts on a narrow island provided that as the city grew horizontally outwards, population trends dictated a premium on land surrounding the urban core. Early 19th century architects saw the prospect of building upward vertically as a viable means to increase urban density at a time when horizontal urban spread was impractical for most citizens who either walked or relied on slower transport technologies to get to and from these spaces of commerce.

In addition to growth upwards in skyscrapers, planners saw a necessity in the ability to efficiently move increasingly large numbers of people within its own residential and commercial districts and to and from the urban core. Because of explosive population growth, the city sought alternative ways to run trains that would remove danger to pedestrians in what is known as grade separation. The first iteration of this came in the form of early elevated trolley cars and evolved into full powered steam engines roaring through the streets.


Charles Thompson Harvey is making a southbound test run along the Greenwich Street portion of his cable-driven West Side and Yonkers Patented Railway

Despite the advantages of elevated trains, the general consensus quickly became that these steel behemoths running through the streets were noisy, dirty, unattractive, and made the streets unsafer as the shadows cast by the tracks left the surface level in darkness. Home and business owners upset with the decrease in property values pushed for their removal at the same time as the development of the city’s first subsurface transit system.

These concerns to split grades in transportation took hold all over the city and even became the mission of formal governmental committees. The Brooklyn Grade Crossing Commission sought multivariate solutions to this issue, stating:

“The extension of population along the line of the Brighton
Beach Road and adjacent thereto, was so great and the quick
time made from the heart of the City to Coney Island resulted
in such a great increase in traffic, that the running of motor trains became a source of danger to the residents, and it was deemed advisable by the city officials to co-operate with the Railroad Company in the elimination of all grade crossings existing at that time and to avoid future crossings at grade.”

Which, in short form, is how we got to where we are today. My critique focuses on the canonical form of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s (MTA) depiction of these intersections where stations interact with the surface level. The ubiquitous MTA subway map all but ignores the reality of stations existing spatially, as there is no room in their skewed projection of New York City’s form; thus, these intersections are minimized to simple points on a map. There exists though such a display of these station footprints in what the MTA calls “Neighborhood Maps.” Having produced an incomplete number of these maps to represent the entire subway system, the MTA focused on producing maps that represent what it sees as being important districts. These maps are non-consecutive and can only be found inside local subway stations, usually near the Ticket Booth.


Looking at one of these maps, it is obvious that the primary directive is wayfinding. Flattened station footprints are outlined with exits represented by dashed lines. The primary audience is likely tourists and those disoriented upon leaving the station and looking for local landmarks and waypoints. The map does a good job in integrating the street and station format as true to scale and representative with a more ubiquitous surface map of New York typical of other mapping projects.

While I believe that these maps do their job and serve a general purpose of providing direction, their limited availability and lack of scope obscures the complexity of these networks. For example, the combined Midtown maps reveal a very closely arranged array of station corridors that, if used properly, could serve the original intent of their constitutive tracks in removing pedestrian interactions with street traffic.


The Midtown East and Midtown West Maps combined. The two were split and are never shown together. When spliced they show the close enumeration of multiple station waypoints on 42nd Street.

This is actually not a new concept in New York City, and the idea of integrated multi-grade crossings was first introduced by Calvert Vaux in his design of footpaths, carriageways, and bridle paths in Central Park. He utilized a number of elegant bridges, arches, and landscape treatments to create a subtle yet unencumbered separation of pedestrians and carriageways.


I believe that there is a virtue in depicting these subway stations on a flat 2D map, as this format is the most instantly recognizable to users and is accessible across levels of map literacy. For those traveling to New York with no understanding of grade-separated corridors, this example is an easy way to depict an exception from standard means of surface transit. Where this becomes egregious, in my mind, is in its depiction of station complexes that allow passage from elevated train platforms to subway station corridors. While not as plentiful as the generally dualistic majority of stations, these interactions occur occasionally, such as in the example of Yankee Stadium. Here the station shows no regard to multiple grades, and flattens the station complex into one gray box, giving an assumption of unencumbered movement within this space.


There has been a recent attempt to redesign these maps, integrating the MTA’s neighborhood maps with a new initiative by the Department of Transportation (DOT)  into the new WalkNYC wayfinding initiative. These new maps are a citywide standard for wayfinding and utilize “heads-up orientation,” which depicts the direction the user is facing.

“With this new map, everyone will rely on one way-finding system, both above and below ground.”

The new standardized maps are a step backward, in my opinion; removing the station footprints and leaving only indicators for station entrances.

My concept for a new reality of spatial awareness would piggyback off of Candy Chan’s work in her “Project Subway NYC.” Chan created a series of axonometric maps that depict that the complexity of these station corridors.


While I am a fan of her work in tirelessly documenting the spatial layout of these spaces, I would like to extend it further into a depiction of an integrated network, helping to show the possibility of pedestrian flows that can utilize these networks. This would involve demarcating fare-controlled areas from free areas. The primary goal of this project would be to show connections along corridors, and in doing so I would focus along a primary axis and highlight station egresses. I believe that demarcating exits by numbers along an axis could help create an easily understood semiotic system.