Harry Beck’s Tube Map Causes Travel Confusion

An academic at New York University has carried out a study confirming what most of us instinctively knew: Harry Beck’s tube map design sometimes confuses people into making longer journeys than necessary.

Zhan Guo has published a working paper (PDF) looking at whether a map based on distorted geography can distort travellers’ perceptions of reality – people still get the tube from Charing Cross to Embankment, even though in the time it takes to get to the Bakerloo platforms from the Strand, you could have walked to the river. He concludes

the map effect is almost two times more influential than the actual travel time. In other words, Underground passengers trust the tube map (two times) more than their own travel experience with the system. The map effect decreases when passengers become more familiar with the system but is still greater than the effect of the actual experience, even for passengers who use the Underground five day or more per week.

We were reminded of those anecdotes where Londoners send an out-of-town friend to a pub, then walk round the corner and are halfway down their first pint by the time their friend shows up. (Thanks go to Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island for the details) – Bank to Mansion House, Great Portland Street to Regent Street, Temple to Aldwych (OK, not a tube station, but still). But it’s not just tourists: we can think of plenty of occasions when we’ve unthinkingly put faith in the map and taken twice as long to get somewhere.

The next question of course is: can anything be done about it? Zhan Guo ponders getting Advanced Traveller Information Systems onto phones – waiting times and crowding info while we’re en route – and altering maps to reflect more accurate transfer link lengths (for example, we think the Jubilee line interchange at Green Park should carry a massive warning sign). But is the tube map already too crowded? Do we, when all’s said and done, not mind a slight detour for the sake of a map that’s generally nice and clear?

Maxwell Roberts’s tube map, photo by Annie Mole from the Londonist Flickr pool

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  • Meg

    When I first moved to London, I lived near Bayswater station and worked just by Goodge Street station. Queensway was closed for refurb at the time (side note: the map makes Bayswater and Queensway look miles from each other though they’re about a 3 minute walk), so I was getting on at Bayswater, switching to Central at Notting Hill Gate, and switching to Northern at Tottenham Court Road. Epic. I realised about three weeks before moving out of my flat that I could have been going the other way from Bayswater, getting off at Great Portland Street, and waking just a few minutes to work. It when then I learned never to navigate using the Tube map!

  • http://twitter.com/davehodg Dave Hodgkinson

    Cycling in London is a great leveller :) Maybe there should be hints on the map for walkable distances?

  • London00001

    A research study? Who the hell paid for that? Look on Google maps, or do your own research into your route! 

  • Londonist

    Temple to Aldwych was possibly by tube when Bill Bryson wrote “Notes from a Small Island” – it’s just that Aldwych tube station has closed since then. The building still exists and is occasionally open for exhibitions and other events.

  • Marky

    The obvious one is, as mentioned above, Queensway to Bayswater.

    A couple of years ago a map was produced in which stations closer than 500 metres apart were indicated (the assumption being that it is slower than walking between them): http://rodcorp.typepad.com/rodcorp/images/tube_walklines_final_lmfaint.html

  • Marky

    The obvious one is, as mentioned above, Queensway to Bayswater.

    A couple of years ago a map was produced in which stations closer than 500 metres apart were indicated (the assumption being that it is slower than walking between them): http://rodcorp.typepad.com/rodcorp/images/tube_walklines_final_lmfaint.html

    • Adam

      Other than being out of date, there’s at least a few errors on that map, the most “dangerous” of which is between White City and Latimer Road. They’re on opposite sides of the A3220 which you can’t cross there…

  • Rachel

    Does anyone have an tube map that shows the geographical layout of the lines in reality? 

  • Rachel

    Does anyone have an tube map that shows the geographical layout of the lines in reality?