Massimo Vignelli's classic 1972 map of the New York City subway

What’s the most viewed map in the world? It’s hard to say, but the New York City subway map must be up there! Which is why, to much fanfare this week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority–the body that manages New York’s subway system–announced an updated version of the city’s subway map to be unveiled next month.

This is blog-worthy news because signage is one of the most important elements of any public space, especially public transportation systems. In cities all around the world –New York, Paris and London to name a few — the subway (or metro or tube) map is among the city’s most iconic imagery. Transit maps are how people, visitors and residents alike orient themselves in the concrete jungle. It’s what they consult for a wide-range of activites, whether for planning everyday trips or even deciding what neighborhood to live in. In many respects, the NYC subway map is a more accurate reflection of city life than the real map!  By moving beyond the transit system, the NYC subway map has become more than just a map–it has become an icon of the city itself.

The new map: Fatter Manhattan, skinnier Staten Island, and a refined color scheme, among other improvements. Credit: NYTimes/MTA

So long as there are subways, planners and designers will aspire to create the “perfect” map, one that seamlessly balances readability, functionality and aesthetics (or even none of the above.) The New York subway map has been through many iterations, but has not been substantially altered since 1998 and arguably since the late 1970s. The new map announced yesterday will better assist users in navigating the complex system. The most prominent features: reduced clutter and a plumper, more prominent Manhattan.

For a brief but comprehensive history of the NYC subway map, visit NYCSubway.org, a great resource for information, history and trivia about the subway.