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New York Today: Color Coding the Subway


R. Raleigh D’Adamo with his multicolor subway map.

Reka Komoli

Good morning on this drier Tuesday.

Imagine if New York’s subway map had only three colors.

That’s not a rhetorical exercise. Before the 1960s, it did. You can thank R. Raleigh D’Adamo for the map being color coded by route.

Until 1940, when the subway system was taken over by the city’s Board of Transportation, a predecessor of the current Metropolitan Transportation Authority, three companies operated subway trains. The map used three colors to show which company ran each route.

In 1964, recognizing that the tricolor maps needed an update, the city’s transit authority held a public contest for a redesign. Mr. D’Adamo, a lawyer and self-described transit aficionado, entered with a map that gave each route a different color.

“I wrote that the maps were trying to do too much work with too few colors,” Mr. D’Adamo said recently about the report he submitted with his design, which had seven colors.


How a portion of Manhattan was pictured on Mr. D’Adamo’s map.

Raleigh D’Adamo and Reka Komoli

Mr. D’Adamo’s entry, along with two others, won first place. The winning designs were given to the transit authority, and the color-by-route concept was incorporated into an official redesign of the map by 1967. All versions of the subway map since have been based on color coding by route.

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Mr. D’Adamo’s original map never became official, partly because the contest rules had demanded a geographically accurate layout of the city, but the transit authority later decided to go with a design where the geography was more loosely…

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