Image credit: Transport for London

When you think of a subway map—almost any subway map—you think of neat, orderly straight lines, usually running north to south or east to west, with other lines running in the primary intercardinal directions. But in reality, geography rarely behaves so well, so a geographically accurate subway map actually resembles a handful of spaghetti that’s been thrown on the ground and stepped on, for good measure.


This London Tube map—meant for nerds like me, if I’m being honest here—came out of a Freedom of Information request sent to the Transport for London (London’s equivalent of New York’s MTA), in 2013, reports City Metric. The requester wanted a “detailed track and signalling map of the Undergound network.” And here it is:

Image credit: Transport for London

By contrast, here’s the map that everyone else uses:

Image credit: Transport for London

Trying to take that madness and translate into something that people can easily understand at a glance is a challenge. That’s part of what makes cartography so hard, notes WIRED:


They must balance readability with geographic accuracy, and their work legitimately influences how people see the real world. NYU transportation policy researcher Zhan Guo has found “passengers often trust the [London] Tube map more than their own travel experience on deciding the ‘best’ travel path.”

And bringing things back to the homefront, the MTA subway system is nowhere as neat as the map makes it out to be either.

Image credit: MTA

Manhattan is way skinnier and more askew than the MTA’s subway map, according to our friends at Gizmodo. A more accurate map would look like this, found on Benjamin Schmidt’s website, who is an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University:

Image credit: Benjamin Schmidt

The MTA subway system isn’t just twists and turns, though. The lines also run on top of and below themselves. And thankfully, the people at Project Subway NYC are talented and patient enough to create three-dimensional drawings of a few subway stops, as Gothamist points out.

Pictured: 59th Street Columbus Circle subway stop. Image credit: Project Subway NYC

It’s fascinating stuff. If you’re a subway buff, definitely check all of this stuff out.