The colorful history of the New York City subway map revealed

New York City, 1932 - at that point, the New York City subway has been around for a whopping 28 years. With 472 station stops, around 800 miles of track, and over 20 different subway lines, one might be shocked to hear that in 1932, the NYC subway system was attempting to label all 27 subway lines with only 3 colors. To even get close to understanding how NYC subways went from 3 colors to today’s 10, one would have to speak to a man named Peter Lloyd.

Lloyd is an amateur historian of the New York City subway system. He not only knows the system’s ins and outs he also knows the story of the creative geniuses that brought the system to where it is today. The New York City subway system has a long and outstanding history, but in order to learn where the color-coding system originated, we need to talk about 2 key players.

First and foremost, there is Raleigh D’Adamo, winner of a contest that the New York City Transit Authority held in 1964, and technically the creator of the modern color-coding system that exists within the NYC subway system today.

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In 1964, the NYCTA contest called on graphic designers to attempt to design a way to organize the extremely disorganized subway system. D’Adamo wasn’t a graphic designer by profession, but he was a subway map guru and a man with an idea, so he entered the contest and to his surprise, he was one of three winners.

Although not the focus of the contest, his background in practicing law came in handy; D’Adamo says, “to explain it [his idea] I wrote a 19-page report comparing New York City’s system with other systems like London and Paris.” D’Adamo went on to explain that the key phrase that caught the eyes of the judges was, “It’s clear that the maps of the New York City subway system are using too few colors to do too much work.” All in all, D’Adamo's idea was that every line would be assigned a color, and so the modern coding system was born.

This organizational strategy worked for a few years but having a map with over 20 colors on it eventually started to confuse people. This is where John Tauranac enters the picture. Today, Tauranac is a professor at NYU, but back in the day, he was the leader of a key team in the MTA when the NYC subway map was going through some important changes. To simplify the color system, Tauranac and his team decided to incorporate something called “trunk lines.”

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Trunk lines made it so subway lines that ran on the same avenue were all labeled the same color. Lloyd explains it best when he says, “Lexington Avenue has 3 lines running down it, the 4, 5 and 6. Now back in the 60’s and 70’s each of those routes had its own color. John Tauranac’s idea was to paint those 3 routes the same color and that meant he can draw a single line instead of 3 lines, saving space.” This trunk line system is still in effect, and New York City has John Tauranac to thank for the easy-to-read maps of today.

New York City is home to the largest rapid transit system in the world. However, when it comes to reliability, it finds itself towards the bottom of the list. This may change, but after understanding the rich and longstanding history of the NYC subways, it can be agreed upon that the properly organized and accurately colored system we currently have is far better than the one of bygone days.

See the exclusive video interview with Lloyd above to get the full story.