It's no secret that subway maps are mere approximations of geography. Designed for maximum readability, they map the subway system onto stylized curves and evenly spaced stops. Still, the images of these familiar maps distorted by geographic accuracy are more striking than I even imagined.

These maps were created by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University and a researcher in the digital humanities. Check out the interactive version at his website, where you can adjust the transparency of the overlaid map while zooming in and out.

I've seen geographically accurate subway maps before, but this particular presentation of a familiar map, all scrunched up, made obvious the difference between a city's dense inner core and the larger metro region. Large subway systems serve two almost distinct functions: short rides to get people on foot from one neighborhood to the next, and long rides reaching out into the suburbs where the stations all have parking. As you ride out to the end of a subway line, the stops become further and further apart, the riders fewer and fewer.


When I clicked over to New York City's subway map (at the top of this post), it stood out for how little it changed. The MTA's map is one of the few I've used that includes street names as well as subway lines. Thank goodness, because in my pre-smartphone days, this map is how I got around the whole city. The walking distances were occasionally a bit deceptive—but it worked very well. [Benjamin M. Schmidt]