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Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

12 October 2007

I freely admit to being something of a trainspotter. Not in the sense that I write down engine numbers in little books, but in the sense that I admire the organisation involved in the smooth running of public transportation. I do hope that this review doesn’t make me sound a complete anorak.

Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

I’m fond of maps, and the development of maps and map design. The ways in which we display information intended for public use is a particularly fascinating subject, bringing together all kinds of aspects of semiotics, information management, graphic design, and overall aesthetics. So Mark Ovenden’s Metro Maps of the World sets my heart a-fluttering in a way that rather defies its status as a book that seems to be meant for display on a coffee table.

The book shows the development of underground/metro systems in cities all over the world, and more specifically, the development of their mapping systems. Due reverence is paid to Harry Beck, the Englishman who revised the way that metro maps were created — instead of showing how the London Underground lines really looked to scale with a London street map, he simplified the design into a cleaner, more readable format that is more of a diagram than a proper map. (Here’s an image of Beck’s revised Tube plan from the early 1930s; compare it to one of the pre-Beck maps.) But Metro Maps of the World covers more than just London. Ovenden’s book compiles historical maps of the world’s major metro systems, from the Moscow Metro to the New York City subway, from Berlin’s U-bahn to Tokyo’s TRTA/TOEI system. There are sections in the book devoted to smaller systems that are no less intricate in design, as well as metro systems whose construction is still being planned.

Gorgeously illustrated and rich in detail, Metro Maps of the World is utterly fascinating to anyone who has attempted to navigate the metro system of a major city. And if you plan to visit any major city in the near future, the book might also be terribly useful from a practical standpoint. Better to get an idea of how the maps work when you’re still at home, after all — it certainly beats standing in front of a metro map and feeling panic rising in your stomach when you realise that you’ve no idea how to get where you want to go.

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