Friday, October 7, 2011

Crosstown Traffic meets The Land of Confusion - The Colour-Coding of the New York Subway System

Ever missed a date in Constantinople, because she was waiting in Istanbul? Yeah, me neither. But I’ve been living in New New Amsterdam for just a couple of months and I already had a misunderstanding due to failed reading of the Subway system nomenclature. Some friends of mine were visiting the city and wanted to see the university campus. I gave them proper directions from the place they were staying in Flushing to Columbia with the subway with only one transfer at Times Square. The plan was foolproof as the 116-Columbia station has only one exit and I was waiting just outside of it. It was easy, it was perfect. And then I got the call from 116th and Lenox Ave…where the 2-train stops, some seven avenues away. Everybody who has used the New York Subway at least a few times by now knows that they got confused by the colour-coding and took the other Red line, which does not go to Columbia. You have no idea how many times I said “the 1-train” in my directions and how many times I refused to answer the question “so which colour is that?”…
The obvious reason for the confusion is that the couple that visited me was from Chicago where the ‘L’ only has colour-coding as opposed to the NYC Subway which has a triple coding system of colour, line and service. While colour is obvious, the other two terms might be confusing even to locals. “Service” refers to the letter or number, which is the most commonly used every day name for a train and then “line” refers to the physical tracks that the trains run on, which both have historic background. Up to 1940 there were three companies (two private and one municipal) that operated the Subway – Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND). They are all now parts of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), but they are still recognized by its structure. The IRT alone constitutes the MTA’s A-Division and its services are assigned numbers. The B-Division consists of the former BMT and IND and its services are assigned letters. So any given train receives a three-fold code, for example the one that goes to Columbia University would be IRT Broadway-7th Ave Line Tomato Red 1-train.

Here are some examples of remnants of the three former companies :
BMT Subway
IND Subway 14th St
IRT 191st St
CTA 'L' Map
The history of the subway system in New York as well as its structure made it all so complicated. To use the Chicago example, every line has its own tracks and theonly stations with multiple lines are in the down town area around the Loop, where all lines stop. However, the history of the rapid transit system in Chicago is not much different with the major change coming in 1940 as well. So why can Chicago switch to simple colour-coding and New York cannot? Another question spring out of that, though – how simple would such a system really be in NYC? One could argue that such a system is already in place since people most readily recognise the colour-coding. Currently, though colour is assigned in correspondence to the line the service runs on in Midtown Manhattan. For one, this shows zonal rankings within the city with Midtown apparently being the most important one. Another possible meaning that could be derived is that Midtown is supposed to be the main tourist centre as local would most probably know the system better and would not simply rely on colour-coding. I bet Battery Park City, SoHo and the Financial District would have something to say about such distribution of tourists…
MTA Subway Map
Many interesting inference could be made about the meaning behind the choice of colour-coding, but it is not only culturally and socially, but also practically problematic. What would happen to tourists who decide to wander outside of the realm of Midtown? What people who live in the city but are new to the area? For example, I know people wondering why the E-service is coded Vivid Blue and paired with A and C-services. It only shares eight stations with the C and five with the express A. On the other hand the E-service shares six stations with the Bright Orange M-service. Orange colour seems even more appropriate when considering that the E-service runs together with the F-service from Jamaica to Long Island City and they share five stations when running express during the day and thirteen stations when running local at night. So how confusing could it be for someone from Chicago or Washington, DC or Prague, for example, where only colour-coding is applied, to recognise the A and E-services as the same line? How confusing is that for someone who lives in Jackson Heights and to whom the F and E-services are virtually the same, but are different in colour?
Future 2nd Ave Line
So it is confusing, but so what? Maybe it is more important for the city to preserve its historic association with the BMT, IRT, and IND, whose ownership of the Midtown tracks before 1940 determines the colour-coding of the whole transit system in four of the five boroughs. Maybe the MTA does not believe that colour is all that important and that letters and numbers are more appropriate labels. Maybe the colours are just an extra that the MTA throws out of generosity. Buy one get two free kind of situation. Maybe the diversity of New York is once again represented in the subway nomenclature as it uses this three-fold designation system. Well, maybe. But what about the planned 2nd Ave line? It will not run on any of the three historic companies lines in Midtown so how can it be assigned a colour? Or a number or letter for that matter? The 2nd Ave line is tentatively dubbed T in teal and is supposed to open in 2016. It would run from Hanover St along 2nd Ave up to 116th St and would then end at 125th and Lexington Ave where transfer would be available to the 4-5-6 IRT Lexington Ave Apple Green lines. A redirection of the BMT Broadway Sunflower Yellow Q-service from 59th St to 63rd St and then onto 2nd Ave would provide a double service on the new line. I guess the BMT connection with the Q-service is where the T-service gets its letter association. But where does the colour come from? Is it a combination of the 4-5-6 apple green and the Q sunflower yellow or is it just completely random? I assume everyone is free to making his own reading of it.
What the MTA Subway system shows is how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways. The reading presented here is perhaps the one that the MTA was looking for, but there are so many others. The 1-2-3 and 4-5-6services run almost parallel in Manhattan on the two opposite sides of Central Park and are assigned the two opposite colours of a traffic light – red and green. However, the 2 and 5-service run along the same tracks for a substantial length in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, too, which makes the opposing lines reading obsolete. The L-service could be read as tied to the Shuttle services.I have heard tourists regularly referring to the “S-train”, which a local would probably never say. The MTA makes the distinction between Light Slate Grey L-service and Dark Slate Grey Shuttles, but I am sure many people think they somehow need to be connected due to the proximity of their colours. Yet the L-service does not share a single station with any of the Shuttles. Colour is also recognized differently by different people so some might view the Lime Green G to be closely connected to the Apple Green 4-5-6, while other would-think they are just as different as any other two line and colours. Some would see the M-service (newly Bright Orange) running along with its former colour-mates Terra Cotta Brown J and Z-services for some six stations as logical because of the proximity of the colours, while other might think otherwise. I am not even going to dare discussing colour-blindness and how it could affect reading the subway nomenclature. At any rate, the subway system isquite a fascinating case of how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways producing both justification for the MTA arrangement and confusion and drawing on history, visual perception, track length, number of stations shared and many other categories.


Anna Toledano said...

This is a really awesome post. Do you know when the MTA standardized its color system? Historically, did the IRT and other companies give colors to their lines? I think the circle-shaped symbols to designate the lines are fairly recent (2nd half of 20th c.).

The other aspects of the map - the blue bodies of water, the green parks, the yellow airports (why this color? no idea) - that aren't even involved in the lines themselves conform to a color code as well.

I wouldn't even know where to begin with the tangled webs of the different borough's bus lines...

Rose said...

The color-coding is just one of the many aspects of the NY Subway system which are unintuitive, including the alternation between weekday and weekend trains, the alternation between day and "late night" schedules (concerning which trains run local vs. express, unintuitive because when on earth does "late night" start?), etc. Being from North New Jersey, I've used the NY Subway system sporadically (a couple times a year) for my entire life, but only began using it regularly once I moved to New York, and definitely only got a hang of its quirks once I began using it regularly. I believe that the Subway system, perhaps unintentionally but all the same, can be seen as an indicator of the "other" versus the community--navigating the Subway gracefully (in everything from knowing the stops on a line to literally not falling over when it moves abruptly) is a universal indicator of being a "native" here, as much as being unfamiliar with the subway immediately brands you a tourist (or at least an outsider).

GeorgiK said...

Anna, the colour-coding dates from 1967 when a few big changes were made to the subway nomenclature. So no, the IRT, BMT and IND did not use colours. The colours as we know them now were introduced in 1979. Before that there were green RR-service, pink 4-service, sky blue 3-service and all other fancy things. The map was a rainbow really. So since 1979 things have straightened and a major reason has been tourist demand.

The other colours (water, airports and so on) seem to be "intuitive" whatever that means. After all the intuitiveness for me is gone once the colour-coding is determined by such a strange and obscure factor.

Rose, "late night" is one of my favourite lines in subway lingo. I have heard people arguing so many times whether 8PM is late enough... For the record, as far as I know, "late night" starts at midnight. There are, as you said, many other issues with navigating the subway in New York, but it is only natural that complexity escalates with complexity. Try getting confused using the Buffalo single-line Metro-Rail and you will find it hard to succeed despite half of it being free... Since posting I thought of numerous other issues with the subway (I love rapid transit systems) and with colours in particular, for example what is the issue with blind people and how do they perceive colour. It's a broad topic, indeed.

Maria Maria said...
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