Harry Beck's 1933 Tube map. Image: Transport for London
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Using the science of peripheral vision to test the Tube map

We know how the brain processes things on the edge of its field of vision, and we can use that to analyse the quality of subway maps.

Cartography is a demanding technical skill. The best maps, those that define their subjects, can become icons of design in themselves. London’s Tube map is one of these - so much so, that it’s rare when a major city’s subway network doesn’t look to TfL’s map for inspiration.

The story goes that London Underground was sceptical of Harry Beck’s Tube map, and only produced a small run of pamphlets featuring it in 1932 as an experiment. Its immediate popularity proved that Beck’s insight - which seemed counter-intuitive to many people at London Underground - was correct. When trying to get between stations all you want is the relationship between them, not the geography above ground.

But how to represent that relationship? Beck looked to circuit diagrams, connecting stations with lines that were strictly at 90- and 45-degree angles. No curves. Ticks and diamonds (now ticks and circles) for stations and interchanges. Compared to the horror of, say, New York City’s subway map, it feels clean, and instantly comprehensible at a glance.

That’s an important thing for a subway map - people will be in situations where they need to check where they are in their journey with only a brief look, often out of the corner of their eye, while standing up in a crowded space or reacting to news from the driver of delays on another line. Sure, when entering a station there's more time to pause, gaze, and absorb, but the key to a good subway map is simple: the greatest amount of information in the shortest amount of time.

At MIT, Ruth Rosenholtz and her team from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have been working on how much humans can comprehend through peripheral vision. MIT’s in Boston, and the city recently held a competition to design a new subway map. Here’s the existing one (click images to expand):

And here’s the contest winner, submitted by Russian designer Mikheil Kvrivishvili:

There’s something about the second one that’s just better, isn’t there? But how to tell exactly what that is?

Research into peripheral vision has shown that the brain's comprehension of things outside of the point of focus is muddled. Our brains do a good job of fooling us that we have a larger field of vision than we actually have, but if you’re looking at a specific station on a subway map, information that’s further away from it gets distorted - it's a vague impression of colour and shape, but nothing more.

Rosenholtz and her team have created visualisations they call “mongrels” that simulate what the brain actually sees when it looks at a map, as a way of verifying the quality of a map’s design. The better the map, the less information gets lost in the mongrelisation. It's as close as you can get to a snapshot of what humans truly see when they glance at a map in the setting of a subway train.

Here’s the mongrel for Boston’s existing map, for someone who's focusing on the Kendall/MIT stop on the red line:

And here’s the mongrel for the map contest winner, focused on the same station:

Now it's possible to see why the new map is better. The silver line fades into the white background in both, which isn’t great, but the parallel layout of the lines and the greater space between station names makes it possible to still work out the structure of the system without everything washing out. Simply put, at a glance, the second map always gives you the full system and your place within it, and the first one doesn't.

I emailed Rosenholtz about these maps, and she and her team very kindly produced a similar mongrelisation of the Tube map for us. Here it is:

Turns out, it’s not too bad! It’s centred on Oxford Circus, and everything around it out to the Circle line and beyond, along the lines that have been around for decades, looks pretty good. It's a much bigger network than Boston's so everything is necessarily a bit smaller, but that's unavoidable.

The problem areas look to be the newer additions to the network - the DLR is a mess, and the Overground doesn’t really stand out. In 2015, as the first phase of Crossrail goes into action and TfL takes over the commuter rail lines running through Hackney, that bit of the map is going to look even more complicated and could become more of a mess (and transport blogger Diamond Geezer’s post on this is quite good on this). The Tube map has had things added to it over the years around the edges without the central section really being tweaked in kind, and it might be time to consider rejigging things in the middle to make more space for the outer lines.

But still, it’s still nice to know that, even though Beck’s map turned 81 this year, its initial assumptions about map design were right on the nose.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.