Oranges and lemons

London’s Tube and rail networks coexist, but users are confused by the absence of an integrated map. Hugh Pearman says there’s more to it than too few colours

When I first arrived in London, I knew it only as a series of street-level islands around Underground stations. I never took to buses much, so, for me, the city was defined by the Harry Beck-originated Tube map.

It was a while before I realised how wildly out of phase with reality that diagram is. Even today, I sometimes find myself confused by the Bank/ Monument link and the over-supply of Aldgates. And time slows almost to a stop as you negotiate Hounslows East, Central and West en route to Heathrow. Couldn’t anyone come up with a livelier sequence of station names than that?

London’s not alone in having trouble squaring fiction and fact in its transport graphics. For sheer confusion, nothing beats the Châtelet interchange in Paris. But London has more trouble than most because it is expanding in one direction only – east – and changing the nature of its transport at the same time.

It was always odd that Londoners didn’t have a map that showed all the real connections they can make. Given that the Tube network is concentrated north of the river, the impression given was that south London was a transport-free zone.

Now, even I, a committed north Londoner, know that’s not true. Forget buses – nobody has ever been able to make a comprehensible London bus map. But south London has a surface-rail network that links all kinds of places in sometimes unexpected ways. You would imagine that this network would be fully integrated with the tube map. Sometimes they try, in a half-hearted way. The surface routes are always shown in ghostly outline as if they’re not quite there, or not to be trusted.

Partly this is to do with the ridiculously inconsistent fare-charging system in London. You can buy an expensive paper ticket that lets you travel above and below ground as much as you want – but you can’t do that with the much-vaunted cheaper, hi-tech Oystercard, because the overground rail companies don’t recognise it. The result of this absurdity is to shrink people’s perception of where London actually is – because most people now define the capital as where they can get to with an Oyster.

We’re told this is now being addressed. The rail companies will Oyster-ise, while Mayor Ken Livingstone is patching together a branded overground system that will balance the Underground one and have equal validity. Eventually, it will encircle London. In the meantime, strange little Tube anomalies like the East London Line are being extended and linked into the main network. Elsewhere, did you know that they’ve just dug a £180m tunnel to extend the astonishingly slow and jerky Docklands Light Railway system to godforsaken Woolwich? Apparently it’s part of the Olympics transport legacy.

My point is this: bunging Ken’s few overground-branded lines on to the Tube map in orange – the chosen colour – doesn’t solve the underlying problem: that we badly need a rethink of the map that shows us how to get around on all those other surface lines, particularly in south London. A proper one that gets to grips with the system that already exists.

I fear it won’t happen, for one very good reason: colour. The Tube lines are quite simple and colour-coded. The south-eastern surface rail network is highly complex, hence resistant to colour-coding. Besides, all the main colours have already been used. So we need a new Beck – someone to come up with a new explanatory diagram for all London’s railways. Any takers?

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  • Andrew Sutton November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Email for Hugh Pearman:

    Dear Hugh,

    ‘Oranges and lemons’

    We are your takers!

    I refer to your article in today’s Design Week and your remark ‘nobody has ever been able to make a comprehensive London bus map’.

    As product, transportation and urban designers, Quickmap published London’s simplest ever bus map (zones 1, 2 and parts of 3 and 4) which was launched by Ken Livingston in 1999 and praised in the press and on radio. It was nick-named the ‘smartie’ map.

    Quickmap is about to achieve another first by publishing the only London-wide integrated bus tube train map/diagram. I mention this in confidence.

    In this year’s London Transport Awards at the Hilton, Quickmap was the highly commended runner-up in the information and marketing category; TfL being the winner.

    Incidentally, Quickmap has also completed maps and mapmovies for Wembley, British Land, Kingston, Royal Horticultural Society and others.

    Would you like to know more?

    Andrew Sutton

    copy sent to: GABION

    Quickmap Limited
    PO Box 12, London SE5 9PN tel. 020 7813 3397
    Reg Office: 178 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4NJ
    Company No. 3732957
    Quickmap Research
    The Hat Factory, 65-67 Bute Street, Luton LU1 2EY 01582 878104

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