We all depend on them, especially when we are new to a place, but how many subway users realize that their trusty transit maps are the subject of a tug-of-war between the forces of geographical accuracy and graphical distortion in the interests of ease of use?

Where you stand in this battle probably depends on where you live.

Londoners are sold on their highly distorted Tube map, in which miles of bendy train tracks are straightened into neat, schematic lines along which every curve is a uniform 60 degrees. To this day the map is based on designer Harry Beck’s groundbreaking 1933 “Map of London Underground Railways,” which was the first salvo fired by the forces of distortion in a world then dominated by geographical realists.

Both Parisians and New Yorkers remain in the realist camp. In the 1970s, in fact, the latter flatly rejected a proposal to introduce a map that squished Manhattan so it didn’t appear to be as long as it is in reality.

“(New Yorkers) value the relative geographic accuracy of the current map, because they are trying to . . . judge which station is closest to precise addresses,” explained a contributor to Signal vs. Noise, an online design forum that hosted a brief cyberskirmish between “realists” and “distortionists” in 2007.

Tokyo residents, of course, are accustomed to the city’s schematic maps. “Yawn. I’ve been seeing ‘distortion’ train maps for years via Tokyo’s JR East/Metro maps,” commented one foreign, Tokyo- based user in that Signal vs. Noise debate.

But how well do its noodle-bowl map mazes really serve Tokyo’s commuters?

Not very well, says Vollmer Design, a Tokyo-based office headed by Yoshiko Tajima and German national Ansgar Vollmer. They were so dissatisfied with the English-language map of Tokyo’s rail lines, in particular, that they have spent the last three years (between designing book covers for Asahi Press and other commissions) developing a brand-new transit map for the city. They are now lobbying various agencies to have it adopted officially.

“Tokyo is saying that it is going to be a tourist center. Their maps, though, are just not very user-friendly,” explained Tajima.

While the “yawn” comment on Signal vs. Noise suggests that long-term foreign residents of Tokyo tend to develop a perverse affection for the city’s convoluted maps, first-time visitors, it turns out, are genuinely struggling.

“Tokyo subway maps give me a headache. Thank God I went with a guide, otherwise I would have been paralyzed by confusion,” one user told the online forum SkyscraperCity.com during a “realist- distortionist” discussion it hosted in 2005.

Meanwhile, in “Transit Maps of the World,” the authoritative tome on the subject, author Mark Ovenden declares that Tokyo’s maps “might feel equally as baffling” as the city itself.

English-language train maps of Tokyo suffer from at least two problems.

One is that they tend to be made by the rail companies, meaning the city ends up looking like it revolves around either Tokyo Metro lines, Toei lines or JR East lines, but never all of them, as is in fact the case.

The other is that they are generally rehashed versions of Japanese-language maps — meaning the unwieldy English renderings of station names have to be shoehorned into spaces originally intended for two or three compact Japanese characters.

The map currently distributed at Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Tourist Information Centers in Shinjuku, Ueno and Haneda gives all train lines equal weight, but its congested station names means it is barely legible without using a magnifying glass, let alone being helpful in planning a trip.

“We started out the process of designing a new map by talking to our friends, tourists and train-station workers about what they thought of the current maps available,” explained Tajima.

They discovered some oddly simple problems.

“Most maps refer to Tokyo Station as ‘Tokyo,’ leading some tourists to suspect they are looking at a much larger, regional map,” said Vollmer — suggesting this may mislead some into thinking that Otemachi (just a few hundred meters distant) is actually a satellite city.

They also learned that very few people use the station numbering system introduced by Tokyo Metro and Toei in 2004. Tajima explained: “In that system, Shinjuku has four different numbers” — E01 and E27 for the Oedo Line, M08 for the Marunouchi Line and S01 for the Shinjuku Line. “It is just too much for tourists to deal with, and long-term residents already know the station names and don’t bother with the numbers.”

As well as giving station names visual priority over those confusing numbers, Tajima and Vollmer made another key realist-cum-distortionist innovation.

“There are actually too many train lines in Tokyo for a purely graphical diagram,” explained Vollmer. “We decided to make a hybrid.”

The map has, of course, been distorted. All of central Tokyo has been contracted vertically and stretched horizontally so that the Yamanote Line, for example, which in reality encloses the central areas of the city in a vertical, oval-shaped loop, appears apple-shaped. That sophistry allows space for the long English-language station names — all printed horizontally and unbroken.

In exchange for messing with the real geography, though, the designers made one concession to the purists by including several topographical details not necessarily related to trains.

For example, all Tokyo’s major parks are represented graphically. “This makes it easier for people to get their bearings in the real world when using the map,” explained Tajima.

Other innovations include icons, such as a dog to help short-term visitors remember that Shibuya is the place where the famed bronze of the loyal canine Hachiko is located.

When asked about the possibility of Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopting the new map officially, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, which oversees tourist promotion, said they are happy to look at new map designs, but there is a formal process in place by which each of the official train company maps is collated into their Tokyo map.

“Nevertheless, if the new map proves particularly popular and is picked up by other organizations, then there is a chance it could be adopted,” the spokesperson said.

The Japan Times decided the final adjudication on the merits of the new map should be left to the people who will depend on it the most, the tourists.

Found several days ago wandering the streets of Ginza in search of a train station, 36-year-old Alice, from the United States, looked quizically from the Vollmer map to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government map to her own Lonely Planet guidebook before pointing at the first and pronouncing, “That one is probably the easiest to read, but I don’t want to have to carry too many things, so I’ll stick with the book.”

Philippe, 46 and from France, was wondering what happened to the Kabukiza theater, which was reduced to a large hole in the ground. None of the maps were able to tell him that the famed tourist attraction was in the process of being rebuilt, but he concurred nevertheless that the Vollmer production had the edge in legibility. “But I am trying to avoid using the subway,” he added.

Vollmer Design’s new “Rail & Subway Map” of Tokyo can be viewed or purchased online at informa-v.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.