How has the London Underground map changed our understanding of the layout of London?

When you ask someone about London Underground one of the first things that they will mention is the iconic map designed by Harry Beck. ”In 2006 it was named one of Britain’s top three design icons.” (OVENDEN, 2013, p. 153) One can easily say that it could be a top world icon as the map has been copied and redeveloped for many different transport systems all over the world. “To this day Harry beck’s design is the template to underground maps over the world, you can see it every where, its on boxer shorts, its on braces, its all over the place. Its one of Transport for London’s biggest assets.” (ROBERT ELMS — Design Classics: The London Underground Map. 1987. Video)

There are a lot of maps that use Beck’s style as a template, there is a very obvious reason why this is true. “Now the very key to the success of this map is in the omission of less important information and in the extreme simplification. So straightened streets, corners of 90 and 45 degrees, but also the extreme geographic distortion in that map.” (Aris Venetikidis — Making The Sense of Maps. 2012. Video) There are no landmarks on the map. Just the names of the station, this means that the map is not cluttered and only the necessary information is displayed. There are eight different directions the lines can go meaning that the map will always look uniform and neat. But there are issues with this layout, as the lengths of lines have to be perfect so the lines meet in the right place for an interchange. Stations will get pushed closer together or the map extended and moved further out. Even though the map is geographically incorrect it is still very hard to create a map that resembles London because of the limits of 90 and 45 degree lines.

This must change the way we perceive and understand the layout of London. When you look at the map (Fig 1) when sitting on the tube planning where you want to go you imagine the world above you to be laid out as a grid but it is not. When you look at the real locations of the stations and lines it is a completely different picture. (Fig 2) Take Wimbledon for example. Wimbledon station is just 1.4km away from South Wimbledon. On the map it looks like they should be at least 15km distance between them. The suggested route on the tube would take one hour, when it is a 15 minute walk between the stations. This is a very large problem with the map. It makes people think that Wimbledon is a very large place or there are two Wimbledon’s it isn’t just an issue for Wimbledon and isn’t it something that wouldn’t be too hard to resolve. If you move the so it is horizontal after Clapham Common, South Wimbledon would be much closer to Wimbledon there is a large area of white space that is not being used.

Fig 1 Tube Map. (TFL, 2013,

Fig 2 Realistic Tube Map. (Google, 2013,

There can be issues with the omission of the geography of London on the tube map. “If you were to look at the actual locations of these stations, you’d see they’re very different.” (Aris Venetikidis — Making The Sense of Maps. 2012. Video) This does not matter when you are travelling around London. Why do you need to know the geographical route you are taking when you are up to 50 metres under the ground. Also the way the map is laid out it makes you think that all of the stations are evenly spaced but once again this is not the case. This is a main reason that makes the map so successful. This omission of geographical correctness makes the map easy to read and simple to follow your location. Your eyes follow the line easier as the lines are straight.

“To get from Regent’s Park Station to Great Portland Street, the tube map would tell you, take the tube, go to Baker Street, change over, take another tube. Of course, what you don’t know is that the two stations are only about a hundred meters apart.” (Aris Venetikidis — Making The Sense of Maps. 2012. Video) If you were to find out that you have been wasting ten minutes travelling on the tube when you could have walked it in 2 minutes, this could be annoying but Becks design is about simplifying the way we understand getting from point to point. “For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape that you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you.” (Harvey, 2011, p.5) Having a simplified map means that you don’t need to worry about what it really looks like all you need to know is what it looks like relevant to the closest tube station. There is no need to over complicate matters with a realistic map where labelling stations, which is one of the few details that are needed, would become very difficult to place on a geographically correct map. For Tube users the layout of London is insignificant.

Many cities in the world now use the London Tube Map as a template for their designs. Even China, who do not want to be influenced by Western Culture have a Beck style map (Fig 3). The fact that China of all nations has adopted this seemingly uniform look for Tube maps is pure proof that Beck’s has little competition in this area of cartography. With so many different Underground systems out there that use a Beck style map, one would believe that all major cities have the same issue as London does; no one knows the layout of the city.

Fig 3 Shanghai Tube Map. (Travel China, 2013,

If you were to give someone a blank piece of paper the majority of people would draw a map that looked like the Tube map maybe not the exact layout but the roads would be at 45° and 90° divisions as in Harry Beck’s design. “What’s more, we abstract, repeat patterns, and recognize them. We recognize them by the experiences, and we abstract them into symbols. And of course, we are all capable of understanding these symbols.” (Aris Venetikidis — Making The Sense of Maps. 2012. Video) When looking at the map the different lines are forced to go through the same point when there is an interchange, if you were to change from the Jubilee line onto the Northern line at Waterloo station you would have to walk for quite a few minutes until you reached the other platform. The two lines are in fact not going through the same place, as the map would suggest. We recognise the white circle with a black outline as and interchange on the map, when you see that symbol you straight away know that you can transfer onto another line at that station, but there is no suggestion how far the other line is away to the one you are travelling on. It is hard to tell whether this is good or bad when you are travelling on the Tube; you mainly just sit on the train waiting for your stop. If you are in a rush it may not be helpful, it can make London seem small when the Underground is serving such a large area.

On the map there are 287 stations, 29 are south of the river. When you look at the map it seems to be very top heavy. In real life the Thames runs roughly through the centre of London and the density of buildings is the same. There are a lot mainline stations coming out of places including Victoria and Waterloo, these provide travel around this area so there may not be the need as much for underground services. But with this it does change the dynamic of the map and you do think that London is mainly north of the Thames.

Harry Beck’s design has made sure that few people know the layout of the city of London. But this does not matter and anyway did people know the layout of London when the previous incarnations of this map was used, (Fig 4) it is likely that they did not. For the people that travel around London every day or the tourists that come to London to see a city with such history the Tube Map is the layout of London. The icon map is what people imagine when they walk around going from place to place. It does not matter to them that the map is not geographically correct. For them there is no other layout for London.

Fig 4 1932 Tube Map. (TFL, 2013,

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