Designing the Toronto Subway Scheme

Objective: To develop the best Toronto Subway Scheme which we all can be proud of.

Toronto Subway Scheme — 2019 [unofficial] by Anton Vinogradov

The status quo of the current Toronto Subway Scheme is depressing. And it’s hard to believe in it when thousands of people spend time every single day looking at it. It’s sad when they cannot appreciate it. Why would they? The original designer missed the chance to make something memorable.

My main task today is to make the scheme not only aesthetically pleasing but easy to use for everyone. It does not matter if you are colour blind or have any other visual impairments. The scheme must be accessible to everyone. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world, so let’s consider everyone and raise the quality bar high.

Where should I start? It’s fair to assume many aspects of design, and in the beginning, I would like to list all the issues with the subway diagram we have now, and to address all of it with screenshots and descriptions. So let’s dive in.

First things first, let me answer the question “why do I call it a scheme or a diagram, not a map?” Before answering the question let’s figure out what the main purpose of a subway scheme is? The primary goal is to plot a route between two stations quickly. Do we need the actual distance between stations? Do we care about how it correlates with objects above the ground? No! 99% of the time we don’t. In other words, scheme is a diagrammatic representation of the underground world, that has only one purpose; to quickly plot a route from station A to station B. The distance between the stations and the line lengths are not proportional to the real topographical objects above the ground. And as I described above, that was not the primary purpose of the map. The only real purpose is to reduce the amount of time wasted to figure out the best route from one destination to another. Map, in contrast, is a proportional representation of a real geographical word.

The first schematic map was designed by Harry Beck in 1931 for the London Tube. Harry figured that the relative position of the stations is much more useful for commuters. Since then many cities have adopted this approach to creating transit schemes.

The next issue I wanted to address is the overall visual perception of the diagram. The way it is done now, there is no coherency between line weights, typography, colours, and station placement, which all cause fragmented discernment of the subway scheme.

In order to fix it and make it work, I had to keep in mind the future transit expansion. The scheme has to be designed the way to easily (or with minor tweaks) accommodate new stations, lines, and routes. There simply has to be space reserved for the anticipated Eglinton, Pape-Queen or Sheppard East Line extension.

Why do we care now you ask? Why not make the necessary adjustments when it is time? The thing is, people love their daily routines. They get used to many things in their life. And if something suddenly goes differently, it puts an extra cognitive strain on them. For instance, if a station has migrated from a familiar location on the scheme to another, say 4 or 5 inches away, it will make them think longer. New things introduced to the daily routine throw people off. The new scheme will be considered unfamiliar. And returning to the time-saving objective, we discussed earlier; we don’t want people to spend extra time before the subway scheme on figuring out the commute. So, cleverly and thoughtfully considered design with the future expansion in mind will save time to thousands and thousands of commuters.

Let’s speak typography. The font type and station names orientation add extra visibility and clarity to the overall subway scheme readability. This is just something you cannot under-appreciate. I have chosen “PT Sans” font that has enhanced legibility, and which has been proven to be useful for direction and guide signs, and schemes all over the world.

Horizontal station name orientation eliminates unnecessary head tilting. The original Toronto Subway Scheme features tilted station names along “Bloor-Danforth” line which forces the commuters to tilt their head left and right while following the subway line. It is bizarre! The re-designed scheme does not have such a flaw. All the station names are oriented horizontally, which is natural for human eye.

Much more legible scheme with horizontal station name orientation

Now it is time to address the colour blindness issue I spoke earlier. In modern navigation colour blindness or other visual impairments have not been paid sufficient attention as it deserves. To be fair, it is getting better every year, but we are not there yet.

People struggle and don’t feel understood in modern navigation design. When it is roughly one in ten men (males are more prone to color vision deficiency than females) has such a genetic disease, we should think and shape the scheme accessibility. This brings the following features to be implemented: high contrast, visible even in grey-scale, no line turns and pivoting under the interchange stations. The last one is a good one, why no hidden line pivoting you ask? When we eliminate such attribute (the line pivoting under the interchange stations), the line is perceived as a whole line, not a fragment.

Colourblind people will have no issues with following the line paths. Even if they don’t see the colour, they can quickly tell one line from another. Try it yourself.

Black & White version of the re-designed scheme showcasing high readability and contrast

You might have already noticed, I have eliminated circles as a design feature for identifying stations. It is not a good idea to use it, especially on the high-dense areas. The “stumps” are visually lighter and bear an extra hint by pointing to the station name. You can compare it your own on the below image.

“Stumps” vs. Circles

Moreover, the design features a larger typeface, which makes it easier to read the scheme from a distance.

Okay, it is time to talk about nitty-gritty details and exciting nuances of the new diagram.

If you ever traveled from west to north or the other way around, you probably have questioned which route or rather which interchange station you should pick: the Spadina or the St. George. The existing Toronto Subway scheme does not give any clues or answers for that. And if the route is well-known for you, you probably know that the difference lies in the time and the amount of leg-work you would need to do had you choose the Spadina interchange. Yes, from the first glance for a profane commuter it looks like you are saving on travel time, but it’s not. Spadina has a long inter-station passageway which you will spend three-five minutes walking in. Probably not a good idea after a long workday. The scheme which I have designed is trying to answer the question with a hint on walking distance in minutes. Now you have to spend less time on mind-boggling puzzles.

In the same fashion, the approximate travel time to main airports is implemented. Small iconography shows bus routes and trains to Toronto Pearson and Billy Bishop Airports.

Bus routes and train show the distance to the airports in minutes

What is next? I think the next logical step would be to add the major sightseeing attractions, which would be convenient for tourists. I also was thinking about adding other transit systems if it does not sacrifice the scheme readability. All in all, thank you for sticking with me throughout this piece. I would appreciate your comments, suggestions, and improvement proposals.

Cheers 👋🏼, Anton @ devline

I observe the world around me, note imperfections, and strive to fix them. Or at least I try. The original author of "The Rules," started in 2010 in Russia.

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