Metro Global: Uncovering the Tracks

Qiqi Xu & Jonathan Skjøtt

Subway systems are influential changemakers in cities throughout the world. Why they are built, when they are built, and for whom they are built is often a point of contention. When constructed, they impact the social, cultural, and historical consciousness of a city's inhabitants. Thet rewire not just a city's transportation infrastructure, but the way a city is understood spatially by its population.

The common discourse about metro systems is one of a technology which gives people access to transportation. A technology which brings together people of diverse backgrounds as they journey form A to B in the city. However, historically metro systems exclude some populations in different ways. This exclusion can happen through lack of representation on maps, in metro planning processes or by sheer lack of transportation coverage. A subway inherently creates a center and a periphery in a city. The points to which most lines lead become cemented centers whereas the location to which few or no metro lines go becomes the periphery.

Subways have in the 20th century increasingly been used as tools for signifying that a given city is global. Metros are actively used as tools for socially engineering citizens in the image of the 20th century modern western society. Metros are often part of large-scale high modernist schemes executed by governments to reshape the urban environment and population while seeking to put distance to local culture, habits and history.

Subways have become part of the narrative of the modern and global city. Thet have become historically and culturally ambiguous spaces with little or no local historical representation. A metro system and its aesthetic often has more in common with metro systems found in cities on the other side of our globe than with its immediate environment. In many ways the concept of the global metro has developed, alongside other concepts such as the global slum, as components of the global city.

On this site you can explore how subways in three cities, New York, Mexico City and Delhi, have shaped and were shaped by historical forces in the cities they are a part of.

Mapping Subways

The map is a transformative invention that enables us to visualize geography and space. However, they can also be deceptive, whether this is intended or unintended by the creator of the map. The map you see on the right from 1920 depicts a proposal for an expansion of the New York City subway. The dotted lines represent proposed lines. This sepia tone paper reveals an ambitious plan to expand the subway lines in the upper east side of the city. Subway cars in this area were reaching capacity limits. Some of these imagined lines did not make it from the map to the underground due to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Throughout this exhibit, we encourage you to "read between the lines" -- by thinking about what the design and framing of a transportation system, a city or map say about a metro system's historical purport.

Accuracy or Efficacy?

Don't underestimate New Yorker's strong opinions on the look of their city's bloodline -- the subway system. This picture dates back to 1961, when a new color-coded map and nomenclature showed up in the station and stirred up chaos. The conflict we are about to introduce you to highlights one of the core questions this exhibit is probing into: Do subway maps need to exchange geographical accuracy for visual efficacy? At the center of this debate were US mapmaker John Tauranac's classic NYC subway map and Massimo Vignelli's modernistic reinterpretation of Tauranac's map.

Accuracy or Efficacy? - Vignelli

The NYC subway map had always incorporated geographic cityscape1 until in 1972, Vignelli was commissioned to design the subway map to overhaul the way-finding and signage system of the labyrinth-like subway system of NYC. The Italian modernist designer shocked the commuters with his bold, diagrammatic map that's designed to provide just the right amount of information for commuters to get from point A to point B -- waters were represented with light-brown patches, streets were eliminated entirely, and all the subway lines only took 45' or 90' turns. The design community celebrated this state-of-art abstraction and visual hierarchy, while the public complained about the oversimplification of the urban landscape.

A mapmaker by profession, Mr. Tauranac criticized Vignelli's lack of geographic integrity, while Mr. Vignelli scoffed at the messiness of Tauranac's map. At the core of this is different design ideologies -- Tauranac aimed for clarity while remaining faithful to the city's geography, while Vignelli strived for a top-down schematic way-finding system that emphasizes utility and manifest his high modernist ideology. What Vignelli did not think of, was what the geographic absences and distortion of cityscape could lead to.

Accuracy or Efficacy? The Subway Map War Continues

In 1979, Tauranac lead the NYC subway map committee to produce the classic NYC subway map on the right as "a remedy" to Vignelli's diagram. A mapmaker by profession, Tauranac strives for visual clarity and geographical accuracy. His map posits the subterranean transit system in the aboveground urban context with bridges, streets and rivers on it, which "formed the basis of the all NYC subway maps since that initial design1". However, although maps produced after the 1979 classic reflect the cartography of the city, a certain level of distortions still persist.

NYC Subway map vs Geography

This animation by playhou.se1 illustrates the "true colors" of the NYC subways lines. What do a over-enlarged Manhattan and a condensed Brooklyn (where the aforementioned proposed lines were never built) tell us? Amplified legibility seems to be inadequate to justify this misrepresentation as unintentional. What we see here is a striking example of how a subway map skewing its focus towards the social and economic center whilst often misrepresenting the periphery. Public transit system should serve as a crucial infrastructure to achieve spatial equality, but scroll down, you will see how that failed.

NYC's Informal Transit System

A formal map and transportation grid will always be a result of a range of choices made by designers and planning committees. There is always value in asking questions about what is included, what is excluded and why these particular prioritizations were made when interacting with a particular map or metro network.

In the interactive visualization on this page we have tried to investigate which transit flows are left out by the formal representation of the city's transportation network. The upper layer contains the metro lines of New York. The layer beneath shows popular routes taken by buses in the informal dollar bus network which transport thousands of New Yorkers to and from work every day. By comparing the two layers it is possible to see how the formal and informal transportation networks differ from each other. It shows several flows of people who aren't well-represented in the official transcript. In Brooklyn, each of the three Chinatown have dollar bus routes connecting them with each other and the Chinatown in Manhattan. The areas south-east of prospect heights as well as the burroughs south-east of Jamaica centre all have well established informal transit flows going to and from the centre of the city or the metro system.

The map hints at how metros, if considered as objects that impose a certain memory of the past and present, always will display one image only. In New York, had the depression not hit in the 1930s areas covered by the informal transit systems today would be part of the formal transportation grid.

The Mexico City Metro

The design of Mexico city subway is closely connected to the Olympics of 1968. Mexico was the first developing country to host this high-profile international event, beyond a an critical interface for the city to showcase its modernity to visitors from all over the world, the subway system was also part of a broader development scheme to push Mexico city into the ranks of global cities. the subway system is an strategic interface for Mexico city to showcase its modernity to visitors from all over the world.


Urban project of such scale requires planning to balance the needs of the local community and the visions of the city officials. Lance Wyman, the New York based designer known for his design for Mexico City Olympics visual identity also designed the city's, quite literally, iconic metro map. In consideration of the illiterate population, Wyman's map used icons to identify stations, which completely circumvents the necessity of language and provides a straightforward visual reference for commuters to find their way. "Wyman's pictorial system connected the surface to the subterranean. He created a visible match between the familiar spaces of the city, which were now connected to the new stations via street signs, and the far more abstract underground space of the metro system."

Unexpected Interlude

The metro was schedule to open during the 68' Olympics, but the debut was pushed back as the construction team kept unearthing a massive amount of ancient ruins. To put it in context, only the pottery evacuated in this process weighs 40 tons. The metro signage incorporated the rich history since the very beginning. For example, the Pino Suárez station on Line 2 was represented by the Aztec pyramid that was discovered during excavation. (The official Mexico City Metro twitter account tweets about the history and meaning of every station.) The Mexico City Metro had expanded to twelve subway lines since Wyman worked on the signage of the first three, and more artifacts an ancient ruins were uncovered in the evacuations of the other lines and caused delays in subway construction, raising the challenge presented by the conflict of the preservation of the past and the development of the present.

The designers that came after have continued the visual thinking and created more icons for new stations, as shown in this map made by a metro enthusiast. The Metro icons capture Mexico City's rich past , including both its pre-Columbian days and the colonial period. In an iconological study of the Mexico Metro visual signages, researcher Brenisinova points out that Mexico as a nation takes pride in the Aztec Empire, appreciates the western culture and Christianity brought in during the colonial days, and is "especially proud of the generation of liberators and founders of the independent Mexican state."

In Wyman's opinion, it did not only give the city a visual identity that align with with the Mexico 86' Olympics, but also provided an opportunity for the citizens to gain and sense of identity. Wyman reflected on how the non-verbal metro iconography has impacted Mexico city, "it really brought out a lot of the history and a lot of the dynamic of the city." But Mexico city, especially as the capital of a nation that still carries its colonial memory, needs time to work through integrating the pre-columbian history into its cultural identity. "What's happened now is that some of the icons of the station depend more on depicting things that come out of Aztec cultures, things that even the Mexican population would have a hard time describing as far as what they are", Wyman commented.

En route to a Global city

To really understand the historical context of the Mexico City metro one must look at the aspirations of the Mexican government. The metro was, among other projects such as the olympics of 68', a project which was meant to bring Mexico City up to the standard of other internationally recognised cities. The subway was a part of a grander governmental scheme aimed at making Mexico city a city of truly global status.

The following two primary sources are New York Times newspaper articles taken from the early 70s. They illustrate how the subway became a part of a broader narrative of modernity as relating to the city.

A new yorker visiting Mexico city compares the metro of New York with the metro of Mexico city: "For a straphanger beaten to an apoplectic pulp by the daily struggles with noise, dirt, gloom, tension and overcrowding [...] exploring the [Mexico city] Metro is a wonderful experience"

In describing the Mexico city metro experience as being better than the New York Metro Mexico city is being dragged up to be on par with New York in certain aspects. It is strengthening a narrative of Mexico city being a part of the group of global cities.

"The trains invariably run on time, the rides are quiet and serene, the stations are restful to the nerves and pleasing to the eye, and the passengers are, for the most part, calm and relaxed." More than simply describing the experience of riding the subway, the author is describing a particular urban experience. An experience in which a timely system has been imposed on the world.

Turning Mexico City into a Global City

Other articles treat the Mexico city subway and the people running it as a strong example of what it means to run a subway well.

"Jorge Espinoza Ulloa is in a rather enviable minority group. He runs a subway systems that suffers virtually no complaints from passengers, no vandals who scribble their names on walls, no thieves who lie in wait for the unsuspecting, no noise from screeching cars and- perhaps most important - no deficit."

For Ulloa the metro doesn't only symbolise a technological feat. It's well function is a testament to the civilised nature of the population of Mexico city. When asked whether they have experienced issues with people not adhering to the rules Ulloa promptly responded:

"we simply don't do things like that here. This is a system designed by Mexicans for Mexicans and they take pride in it. You know if you walk into a metro car eating candy or fruit and throw something on the floor, they'll yell at you, warn you to pick it up."

Delhi Metro and Social Engineering

The Delhi Metro system is likely to strike you as a well-established transit system with its unmistakably modernistic aesthetics at a first encounter. The interior of the stations is clean, in stark contrast with the rest of the city. As a staple of Delhi's modernity, the subway system was deliberately used as a social engineering tool to educate the population and encourage commuting culture that is alternative to an traditional one that's familiar to the local community.

"The metro will totally transform our social culture giving us a sense of discipline, cleanliness and enhance multifold development of this cosmopolitan city."

E. Sreedharan. DMRC managing director, 2001

Rather than building a system for citizens to interact and coevolve, the metro officials were clear with a prescriptive approach to shape the behaviors of a modern, urban population. Code of conduct such as "Don't sit on the floor" shows the a type of urban ideology that's originated in the "western model of urban planning".

Metro and a Shifting Mappable City

"There is a new level of abstraction that one experiences as one looks at the city rather than experiencing it on the ground."

Rashmi Sadana, On the Delhi Metro: An Ethnographic View, 2010.

In a year-long ethnographic study (2010), Sadana observed that the subway, with its sprawling lines such as the ones you see on your right, is transforming Delhi into a mappable city. As subway maps are change urban dwellers' perception of the city through distortion and naming, the metro is fabricating a different time-space relationships commuters have with the city. Delhi-ites did not use to imagine the city with "defined borders and a discernible shape." But as the speed of the Metro contracted the city, and the naming of the stations created a shorthand for thinking across the city, the metro formed "a new level of abstraction" in people's experiences with the city that was not conceptualizable on the ground.

And what would those experiences be for travelers who will first see the city through the subway?

Contrasts and Silences

Most of the Delhi Subway is raised above street level. When one leaves the confined world and steps down from the elevated rails, there's more than meets the eye. The complex metro edifice doesn't only built on the grounds of Delhi, but also the homeland of many impoverished neighborhoods with only minimum compensation. The "progress" towards modernity took place along side protests, petitions, hunger strikes, negotiations and legal action. But the optimism of such a massive transit system and its promise modernize the city have left no lines in the broader narrative for the voices of the displaces.

To no surprise, the people who are forcefully expropriated are also not the population that this progressive metro system serves. Although the metro system is seen as the "cure" to many urban ills that Delhi is infamous for, it is essentially creating an insulated modern ideal by ignoring the subset of the population that suffers the most and rather than addressing the root problems head-on. As reported in the news, "there has been a persistent strain of anti-poor bias and the rhetoric of social justice has failed to secure either dignity of life or a clean environment for the majority of the city's inhabitant." And that is clear in the stark contrasts you see on the right.

The Metro as a Miniaturisation of High Modernist Ambition.

The Delhi subway as a infrastructure mega project is surely impressive. However, one might argue that it is the governments attempt at introducing a degree of control in an environments which is else way immensely difficult to navigate because of its immense social, cultural and historical complexity.

The challenges Delhi is facing are truly of a great magnitude. A dual center city with a thousands of year long history, in which currently about half of the population lives in slums.

In Seeing Like a State (1998) James C. Scott discusses the state's tendency to create miniature pockets of success when faced with a problem of a magnitude and complexity which is too great for it to manipulate. Instead of trying to manipulate and make compromise with a complex urban and historical environment, the Delhi metro might be seen as a state decision to instead create a new and relatively simple environment in which the government has the power to determine social and cultural norms.

"The metro is a space of transport that is recognizable in many other faraway places all over the world. Yet, it is an identity marker, and perhaps maker, for its riders, one that forges new historical and relational connections within the city itself. These connections begin with the spaces within the metro and the new kinds of behaviors they require and encourage1."

From New York City to Mexico City and then last Delhi, we have started with the visual representations subway systems, and through historical and social contextualizations of these public transit systems, arrived at the underlying power structure, selective remembering and modern ideologies. The design, planning, and implementation of any massive scale urban project such as metro systems allow us to see the evolutions of the historical and social relations people have with the built environment, as well as with the idea of modernity.

As an irreplaceable urban component that marks modernity and constructs the identity of a global city, it is our hope that subways don't become the transient, innocuous "non-places" (an idea brought forward by Anthropologist Marc Ange) that lack historical and relationship connections with the city, which speaks to the necessity of more work on uncovering the historical forces and ties behind metro systems.