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A generic subway-style map.
A generic subway-style map.

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15 subway-style maps that explain everything but subways

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Subway maps are indispensable. They show us, with incredible clarity, how to get from one place to another, boiling down transit to its essentials. But when subway maps are applied to other things — like parks or food — they serve a very different purpose, revealing relationships and features that were hard to see before. Here are 15 subway-style maps that explain just about everything except subways.

  1. Want to ride the full National Park System? Go to Alaska.

    This subway map of the National Park System, made by the Sierra Club, makes it much easier to see how America's parks are distributed. It includes the Appalachian trail and the connecting hub of Yosemite. But the greatest point of interest might be Alaska, which has no less than eight stops. Alaska has more national park land than any state, including Denali National Park, home to Mount Denali. The gap in the Northeast is also worth noting. The National Park Service was created in 1916, and as a result, it favors the West, which was less developed at the time, had more space, and was easier to claim for parkland.

  2. The world's largest passenger plane only travels limited routes

    The Airbus A-380 is the world's largest passenger plane and can hold more than 500 passengers. By and large, however, the plane only travels routes that can accommodate that much demand. That means the plane often travels between major hubs, which leads to an impressive number of stops in Asia — but not the middle of North America. And the A-380 hardly goes anywhere in Africa except for Johannesburg and Mauritius, showing the limited number of large passenger flights to the continent.

  3. The solar subway map shows the obstacles to interplanetary travel

    At first glance, this map, made by redditor ucarion, looks like a simple transit-style representation of the solar system. But really, it's a more complex portrait of the thrust required to travel from one planet to another. The numbers show delta-v, which is the change in momentum a spaceship needs to leave or enter a planet's orbit. So, because Jupiter is large and has a strong gravitational pull, you'd need a high delta-v of 45,000 meters per second to get from its surface to low orbit, compared with just 9,400 to get to low Earth orbit. Venus is another interesting example — though its mass isn't that large, it has a high delta-v because of its dense atmosphere.

  4. A subway guide to palmistry shows how major and minor lines connect

    This subway-style map created by Jazzberry Blue tackles an atypical subject for the map geek set: palm reading. But by creating an outline of the hand and an illustration of the key lines and features on the palm, it's easy to see the purported connections between the elements. For example, destiny and health lines intersect one another, while head and heart run parallel. Regardless of your belief in the hand's predictive power, this map makes it easy to see the basic ideas behind palmistry.

  5. A North American river map reveals how rivers birthed cities

    Cartographer Daniel Huffman made this map of the United States' river systems (as well as many maps of different rivers). There are a lot of interesting conclusions to draw from the map, from the massive range of the Mississippi river to the impressive size of the Rio Grande. But one of the most interesting revelations may be the cities that serve as "subway stops" on the rivers. They're a list of leading 19th-century cities, like St. Louis, the fourth-largest American city in the late 1800s. Though rivers have become less integral to the economy, the cities along them remain as a testament to their influence on commerce.

  6. A map of food culture shows how media and packaged foods connect styles

    Made by HartmanSalt, this map of food culture tries to chart the connections among global leaders in food. Most notably, it convincingly illustrates how packaged foods and media have connected all different genres of food. As important is the line between global and local food leaders: you may not agree with the classification of who is a global chef and who is a local one, but debating it reveals the fascinating categories at the heart of modern food. The full map is here.

  7. A rock 'n' roll subway map shows the musicians who straddle styles

    Designer Alberto Antoniazza's transit map of rock shows the possible connections between musical styles. Like most music criticism, it's bound to inspire some debate, but the transit map style is perfect for showing the hidden connections between bands. For example, in this section, Antoniazza places Metallica at the intersection of Pitchfork favorites like the White Stripes and Radiohead and metal bands Mötley Crüe and Pantera. Provocative? Definitely. Equally interesting is the classification of Nirvana, which has "connections" with the grunge movement, British rock, and pop rock. The full map is here.

  8. Our solar system is a small line in the Milky Way transit system

    Designer Samuel Arbesman made this map to show the Milky Way in a new way. Our solar system, labeled as "Sol," lies in the Orion Arm, which is represented on the map as a small red line in a galactic system that's much larger. The main advantage of the map is being able to see the major stars and star clusters more clearly. Highlights like M13 and Omicron Centauri are easier to pick out, as is the swirling shape of the galaxy in general.

  9. A map of the elements makes it clear how they connect

    Mark Lorch made this map of the elements, and it makes the connections on the periodic table vivid again. To start from the beginning, hydrogen connects to both fluorine and oxygen because both are on the "gas" line, while fluorine is also a stop on the "halogen" line. These relationships, expressed on the periodic table, are clearer in the new format of the transit map. Particularly interesting are the lines that run in parallel for multiple stops. For example, the subway map makes it clear that most unstable isotopes are man-made. The full map is here.

  10. The body is essentially a giant transit system

    Designer Sam Loman created this map of the body. The most interesting section might be near the head, where the arterial system, central nervous system, and venous system run in tandem with one another. The digestive system stays in the center of the body, while the nervous system "line" snakes throughout. While the relationships among the systems is interesting, their complexity and interconnectivity might be most notable — even without the fine connections found in a traditional anatomical diagram, it's impossible to ignore the complexity of the body's systems. The full map is here.

  11. Microsoft has massive sprawl

    Robin Richards at Ripetungi created this infographic that shows the history of a single company: Microsoft. Though the map only includes investments and acquisitions through 2011, it still succeeds in showing the complexity of Microsoft's operations, as well as the many industries in which it operates. While the other maps are fascinating for the connections they show between different data sets, the Microsoft map might make an impact through its size alone. The sprawling influence of the giant in technology, web services, e-commerce, software, search, and advertising (six of the 11 "lines" shown on the map) shows just how far the global behemoth has spread its interests. The full map is here.

  12. A map of science shows how specialization became the norm

    Crispian Jago's ambitious science map seeks to chronicle the history of modern science. It's interesting enough to debate the "stops" on each line and who deserves a place. But the clearest takeaway might be the specialization that creeps in — suddenly, the scientific "stops" that connect different lines become more rare. In the early years of modern science, scientists like Kepler could connect mathematics with physics and astronomy. As scientific study grew more obscure, such diverse thinkers grew less common. The exception? Later stops include computer scientists, who use new tools across a range of disciplines. The full map is here.

  13. Film masterpieces connect with many genres

    David Honnorat of Vodkaster made this map of the "greatest" movies of all time. Compiled from the votes of IMDB users in 2009, it's guaranteed to spur debate over the selection of the movies. But even if you don't agree with the choices, the map includes some analysis that's worth a look. The most interesting line might be what Honnorat designates "universally acclaimed masterpieces." This line is central to the map, and it connects genres like gangster, sci-fi, and comedy. It also, naturally, has a split for masterpieces about show business — and with that, a subway map becomes a perfect tool for showing Hollywood's self-obsession. The full map is here.

  14. The Oregon Trail's longest stretch without rivers came after the Big Blue River

    Designer Guy Douglas made this map of the Oregon Trail, which serves to map the real journey and the classic game. It makes obvious some basic conclusions about the trail and the game: it was a relatively linear trip, rivers were strongly emphasized, and forts and landmarks alternated with regularity. The long middle of "line" stretch comes after the Big Blue River. With four "stops" on the line between rivers, it's a clear representation of the lull in both the gameplay and the trail.

  15. David Gissen for DeLong Wines

    A French wine map illuminates the regions that make wine distinct

    For DeLong Wines, David Gissen created a wine map that shows the many "lines" of wine regions in France. While most subway-style maps are useful for the connections they illustrate, this map's key reveals its best attribute: a clear delineation of where wine is made in France. By outlining Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and other key regions, the key shows why the distinctions are important, and the full map completes the picture of the relationship. Additional notes, like grape varieties, help this map show information that would be difficult to reveal as easily in another format.


    • Editor: Brad Plumer
    • Developer: Yuri Victor

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