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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Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.