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Map of the Week: London without the Thames

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Mark Easton | 17:06 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009

If you live in a city, the river is more than a landmark, more than something to help get one's bearings or a line to cross - it defines the space.

One's geographical, cultural and even social compass is guided by the slow and steady sweep of a river's path through a conurbation.

To the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, the East Bank of the Nile was the side of life, the West, where the sun set, the side marked out for death and the journey to the afterlife.

In Paris, the Rive Droite is associated with elegance and sophistication, unlike the dangerously bohemian Rive Gauche.

In London? Well, ask any taxi driver and they'll explain how the capital is really two separate cities - "norf" and "sarf", a division which no number of bridges and tunnels can ever unify.

So the idea that graphic simplicity should dictate the river be removed from the iconic tube map of London is controversial to say the least.

No consultation, no political debate, no opportunity for protest; Old Father Thames has been airbrushed out of existence like some Soviet refusenik.


Standard London Tube map with river


New London Tube map without river

British map lovers can be rightly proud of Harry Beck's brilliant schematic representation of the London Underground.

He recognised that it wasn't the physical location of the stations that mattered, but their relationship to each other.

However, his first map in 1931 and every one since, has given readers one geographical feature to cling on to - the River Thames.

Its shape too has been adapted into the schematic format, but the river provides a physical frame around which the network is placed.

A quick look at other underground transport maps from Britain and around the world reveals that almost all include a river for people to get their bearings.

In Glasgow, the "Clockwork Orange" is bisected by the Clyde.

Glasgow subway map

From Moscow comes a cartographic tribute to Beck which, to my mind, lacks the elegance of his original, but the River Moscow is a vital component.

Moscow underground map

The South Koreans find their way around Seoul with the aid of a bewilderingly detailed and colourful map of the subway. Its design is almost hypnotic, the concession to reality is the Hangang (Han River) snaking its way through the chaos.

Seoul underground map

The only example I could find of a tube map which does not include a river comes from Tokyo[563KB PDF]. This, I would contend, is what happens when graphics forgets about geography.

Tokyo underground map

London's tube map is so much more than a metropolitan guide to transport links - it is a work of art recognised and copied around the world.

Disposing of the River Thames from London is like removing the smile from the Mona Lisa.

PS: A correspondent has sent me detailed lists of underground maps WITH and WITHOUT rivers. I am grateful to Mark Ovenden, author of Metro Maps of the World, for this vital information.

Major system diagrams with rivers included:

  • New York (many geographic aquatic features included plus coasts but also large and smaller rivers)
  • Paris
  • Barcelona (coast and river)
  • BostonBudapest
  • Hamburg
  • Montreal
  • Munich
  • San Francisco
  • St Petersburg
  • Washington
  • Amsterdam
  • Bucharest
  • Copenhagen
  • New Delhi
  • Kiev
  • Lyon
  • Newcastle
  • Philadelphia
  • Prague
  • Rome
  • Rotterdam
  • Sao Paulo
  • ViennaCairoSantiago
  • Warsaw
  • Cologne/Bonn
  • Frankfurt

Major systems with no rivers included:

  • Chicago (lake coast is included but not rivers)
  • Berlin
  • Madrid
  • Osaka
  • Bilbao
  • Beijing
  • Stockholm
  • Valencia
  • Guangzhou
  • Shanghai


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  • 1. At 6:30pm on 16 Sep 2009, pandatank wrote:

    You can understand why the cartographers thought to omit the Thames from newer maps of the Underground, after all so little of South London is actually served by the "Tube". However, a more complete picture of public transport around London is gained when combining the "London Connections" Rail & Tube map with the "Tube Map" and the best way of relating one to the other is via the positioning of the only accurate geographical feature on both maps, ie. The River Thames.
    My favourite map is the "Tube" map which includes the walking times between stations

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  • 2. At 6:37pm on 16 Sep 2009, gerald33 wrote:

    To me a city with no river, is not quite a city, think of Brussel/Bruxelles vs Antwerpen, think of Milano vs Firenze. Note I always use the names that the locals use, why use invented names! If it is significant the river should always appear on any map, road or rail.

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  • 3. At 6:53pm on 16 Sep 2009, MacScroggie wrote:

    This can only have been an option dreamt up by a committee.

    No individual would come up with such a scheme, or be prepared to receive the flak of public outrage.

    Removing The Thames from the underground map would be an act of criminal vandalism.

    I write this response as a person who has only been in the London area twice, and has no wish to return.

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  • 4. At 6:57pm on 16 Sep 2009, DeniseCullum222 wrote:

    I lived in London for a few years and grew to hate the place the air was never fresh unless you were out in the early morning, it did not have enough water running through the place and was to far up the Thames to get the blast of cold air you need, It was to crowd with building many of the modern one the designers need to be on Prozac I agree with Charles not that Poundby the nearly Germanic town in middle England signed by HRH is much better. The tubes I hated but it was the quickest way to get around the place far to big and sprawled out. People crowned in on each other which is why there is so much rage in the place it rides on an image that it can not really live up too.

    It lacks style and grace and apart from the Thames and rides on it you would go mad living to long in the place, well I nearly did I hated New York for the same reason to much concert and glass so the place is very cold in the winter keeping in the cold and like an oven in the winter in London its man made. Need more water as the Fleet is still running it could be opened up and the other rivers, make it chi better.

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  • 5. At 7:59pm on 16 Sep 2009, DisgustedOfMitcham2 wrote:

    Never mind losing the river, what about the far more important loss of the travelcard zones? I assume that the new version of the map is specifically designed to confuse foreigners, in the hopes of getting some nice juicy penalty fares out of them when they travel to a zone 3 station on their zone 1-2 travelcard.

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  • 6. At 8:00pm on 16 Sep 2009, DisgustedOfMitcham2 wrote:

    You forgot to mention the map that taxi drivers use. It includes the river Thames, and all the streets to the north of it. To the south of the river is just a blank space with the words "here be dragons" written on it.

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  • 7. At 8:46pm on 16 Sep 2009, delminister wrote:

    why not just add a free colour pen to guess the river yourself, it would make for some great abstract art lol.

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  • 8. At 11:29pm on 16 Sep 2009, crickedneck wrote:

    Bonkers! Is this another TfL idea? Or a Boris job? Either way, haven't they got better things to do than mess about with a perfectly good map that has served well for 80 years? Another example of public sector workers with too little to do before they draw their bloated pensions?

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  • 9. At 02:49am on 17 Sep 2009, EUprisoner209456731 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 02:56am on 17 Sep 2009, alex4D wrote:

    The Thames fits on the new design as it is (if you move a single station along a line a little) - you only have to allow for station labels to overlay the river in parts. ( see )

    This is a test of how far to go with a map redesign. TfL have announced that a new version is coming out by the end of the year. They want to gauge public reaction. The answer is that people want the river and zones back. I imagine that people are far less attached to the disabled symbol being used so liberally to show step-free access to some stations. In practice the actual step-free access isn't straightforward. People who need this access are advised to use a special TfL map with far more information. These big blue blobs were imposed on the map to 'shame' funders into acknowledging how few stations comply with disability access legislation. Now that Ken has gone, surely it is time for Boris to get rid of these blights on the map.

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  • 11. At 03:34am on 17 Sep 2009, tarquin wrote:

    Does it really matter? It's not even in the middle of the tube map, it's a feature at the bottom edge

    And they haven't removed it from the maps at ticket machines or in carriages - just the small pocket versions

    and I agree with 5.DoM2 - the removal of the zones is far more important to me than knowing where the thames is (which is pretty much always 'south')

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  • 12. At 09:13am on 17 Sep 2009, ConstructionLawyer wrote:

    You can't have a tube map without the river...
    ...I'm drowning in an information soup without it.
    Reinstate the river.

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  • 13. At 09:51am on 17 Sep 2009, adampsb wrote:

    Stupid idea.

    Bring back the river and the travelcard zones

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  • 14. At 12:14pm on 17 Sep 2009, Marks_World wrote:

    The fare zones on the map are essential and must be reinstated.
    The river is such a useful landmark on the map that it should stay unless TfL can tell us a very good reason for removing it.

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  • 15. At 12:25pm on 17 Sep 2009, Eviscera wrote:

    The comment about Egyptian Pharaohs isn't quite right. Some of them did believe that the sun, when travelling below ground, was in the land of death and monsters. But this was not related to it being in the West. In fact a better correlation would be the fertile black lands of the river and the potentially deadly, nothing-out-there-worth-looking-at red lands of the desert. Which is surely a better argument for keeping the river on the map :)

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  • 16. At 1:09pm on 17 Sep 2009, alex4D wrote:

    Just announced on BBC London 94.9: Boris has mandated the return of the Thames on the next version of the map.

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  • 17. At 1:13pm on 17 Sep 2009, calmandhope wrote:

    Dont these people have anything better to do?

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  • 18. At 3:30pm on 17 Sep 2009, JP wrote:

    Berlin's transport map misses out the Spree.

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  • 19. At 4:40pm on 17 Sep 2009, seldomhere wrote:

    re Tokyo map
    Maybe not the best example for you.
    It could well be because the Sumida and Arakawa are peripheral to the heart of the city (unlike the Thames). Both are East of Asakusa. The more major landmarks, Tokyo Bay and the Imperial Palace are both on the map.
    The simpler Japanese map is designed around the large green space of the Palace, the city centre.
    and the Sumida river is on the detailed version

    English-speaking visitors probably find a map written in Roman script with station numbers easier to navigate.

    Can't say I've seen TfL offering maps in other languages...

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  • 20. At 5:04pm on 17 Sep 2009, Alastair Ross wrote:

    Huge recession, debt out of control, unemployment rising, bankers bonuses, bankruptcies spiralling, but what really gets Londoners going is a pale blue line on a map - or rather its sudden disappearance on a pocket version of the map. For goodness sake - its just a schematic representation (not in any way geographically accurate) of a river and it does not help one iota in navigating the tube.

    It's depressing to see the mayor is as politically bankrupt as the rest - addressing trivial things he can rail about instead of attacking the tough issues that beset society and our economy.

    Where are we going, and is anyone out there leading? Or are we just a nation of followers, following 'leaders' who are following the crowd?

    Will a real leader please stand up - and soon. Thanks.

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  • 21. At 5:14pm on 17 Sep 2009, oskerr wrote:

    I notice the "London Overground under construction" is wrong. All it shows is the old East London line. So no river and wrong! Not very imprssive.

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  • 22. At 5:46pm on 17 Sep 2009, Steve - Iver wrote:

    It's a map - a cartographic reference. It does not matter if it is geographically correct, so long as the points of reference are correct for it's purpose, and who, when navigating around London, whether East, West or Central, does so without reference to the river?

    Where is Waterloo station? If you're walking, you need different directions, but if you're on the tube, the answer is simple - Bakerloo, Northern or Jubilee line, first stop south of the river. Take the 'non-river' map and try to work that out.

    Rubbish. Put the Father Thames back on the tube map - what is the point of taking it off - to save blue ink. Rubbish. TfL - you're bonkers.

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  • 23. At 6:10pm on 17 Sep 2009, SteveClaridge wrote:

    The reaction by the general public illustrates perfectly what getting the tube to work does to the human condition. CRANKY. IT MAKES YOU CRANKY.

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  • 24. At 7:04pm on 17 Sep 2009, Clive Sinclair wrote:

    So, TFL claim they removed the zones (and river) because the map was cluttered.

    I take it they didn't think it was cluttered when THEY decided to add the 'zones' ? Could it be by removing the zone areas, some travellers might just get confused and buy a more expensive ticket than they actually need?

    Cynical I know, but often true!

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  • 25. At 8:33pm on 17 Sep 2009, aurals wrote:

    Are the designers of the latest Tube map serious? I want to know how much did they get paid for this pointless job. The new map achieves absolutely NOTHING. No Thames and MORE IMPORTANTLY no Travel Card zones. Those Travel Card Zones are very very important for somebody travelling on a pay-as-you go Oyster card. To save money one can get down a zone earlier and take the bus. It may not sound a lot, but to a person it might. Plus people base some of their decisions looking at the zones on the map: like where to buy a house or rent a place. Where to hold a party or where to meet up. The old map was much better and easier to understand. There was absolutely NO clutter in it. The new one looks like its totally empty (like the designers' brains). Please reinstate The River Thames and The Zones. And guys at TFL (or whoever designed the map) GROW UP!

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  • 26. At 8:45pm on 17 Sep 2009, aurals wrote:

    Forgot this important bit about the new map: where are he grids? For instance its easier to find Russell Square Tube Station by saying it is in grid C 5 on the Picadilly line Zone 1 in the old map. How about explaining me how to find Russell Square Station on the new map? c'mon guys this is the basics of map reading. Everybody who has ever read a map goes by the grids or region (ie zones) to find a place. Try and be practical, get it right without wasting money. I guess some designers or the people at TFL need to 'justify' their fat pay packets. This is utter foolishness..the new map that is.

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  • 27. At 8:51pm on 17 Sep 2009, Geekologist wrote:

    Did you know that in the 1960's there was a similar experiment with taking it off the map -- and similar public outcry? In 2004 I conducted a study of the Tube Map and its influence on Londoners' understandings of urban space. Almost everyone I interviewed began by drawing or discussing the importance of the Thames as the "backbone" of the city, even if they didn't know "exactly how it goes." This is not surprising given that shape of the Thames has changed over the years in different tube maps. But the exact shape of the river is less important than how the blue path of the Thames on the map serves an anchoring function in terms of navigating, narrating, and having a place in the city. Still, TFL thinks about the Tube Map internally as their "Journey Planner" and something they have jurisdiction over, without perhaps fully realizing, respecting and leveraging how the map doesn't just represent the Tube, but the city of London itself.

    The results of the study were published as a conference paper and in a peer-reviewed journal and are freely available at - it was also mentioned in National Geographic in July 2008.

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  • 28. At 8:53pm on 17 Sep 2009, gnoledevets wrote:

    Removing landmark information from the map is seriously misguided. There really should be more.

    Although the map is a cool machine-age icon (drawn like an electrical wiring diagram), it's not that useful. The reality of riding the tube is that you are going to a physical location and will be on foot after leaving the station. In this way, the New York City subway map - which includes rivers as well as streets is much more useful. It's not as 'pure' but much more user friendly.

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  • 29. At 8:56pm on 17 Sep 2009, John1948 wrote:

    The river is a quick visual way of orientating yourself when you reading the map. You could possibly achieve the same by marking main roads like Cromwell Road and the East India Docks Road, but the river is the one feature of London that everyone knows about, no other feature would do. Every map needs some reference points to make sense.

    Best thing Boris has done, but I think Ken would have done exactly the same!

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  • 30. At 9:46pm on 17 Sep 2009, STIG wrote:

    Most of us Londoners know where our river is and mentally draw it in the map regardless. We also know that there is very little tube south of it. What is more useful to know are the zones and which stations intersect zones such as Earls Court and Vauxhall. Getting rid of those is a more sinister approach from TFL as it gives them the chance to increase fares. What would be really interesting would be a map of the underground with all the underground rivers marked on it too like the Efra in Brixton.

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  • 31. At 10:45pm on 17 Sep 2009, jakeysane wrote:

    Why doesn't someone look at the map? It's clear that this was nothing to do with "clutter". They wanted to make the map smaller to accomodate the key on the front page, having displaced the key from the back page in order to include an advert from Ikea. The smaller map could not accomodate the Thames and the zones, so they had to go. Thank goodness sanity, the Thames, and the zones have now been restored. We'll have to get directions to Ikea some other way.

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  • 32. At 11:05pm on 17 Sep 2009, purple wrote:

    The distribution of the new maps should be stopped immediately and an inquiry undertaken as to why zone charging information is now denied passengers. Theose responsible for the new design of map, should be sacked in disgrace. The entire network should simply be claimed back into public ownership because of this open and flagrant profiteering exercise. It really isn't good enough anymore.

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  • 33. At 10:50am on 18 Sep 2009, hackerjack wrote:

    Removing the Thames is no big deal, it is only of relevance if the map is geographically correct and it is not.

    The Zones however are critical, especially to those of us who are non-regular users or tourists and wish to get around within the limits of a budgeted zone card.

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  • 34. At 8:34pm on 18 Sep 2009, EdTennisFan wrote:

    "Where is Waterloo station? If you're walking, you need different directions, but if you're on the tube, the answer is simple - Bakerloo, Northern or Jubilee line, first stop south of the river. Take the 'non-river' map and try to work that out."

    That's nonsense. If you're on the tube (in zone 1 anyway; you can see it when you cross it on the District Line between Putney Bridge and East Putney or between Gunnersbury and Kew Gardens), you have no idea where the river is anyway, as you can't see it!

    Zonal information is far more useful. I wouldn't have removed the river personally, but it's not that essential. Surely the outcry is only because everyone is used to its being there and now it looks odd?

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  • 35. At 08:14am on 19 Sep 2009, bronzesnorbens wrote:

    It is not actually true that the Tokyo subway map ignores georgraphy. The little green blob in the middle represents the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Japanese subway builders are forbidden to run lines under the Emporer.

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  • 36. At 10:44pm on 20 Sep 2009, leoRoverman wrote:

    Well perhaps its time to have a radical rethink about London. I mean the sprawl of suburbs which are generically called London and which loosely speaking is the inside of the m25, simply is not a city, a metroplis but an agglomeration of towns and villages that now come under the control of the GLA. The fact that London transport serves all these areas. They include where I live in Welling, which has a dartford postcode. We do have a number of bus services; but a tube, a DLR?, For that you have to go to Woolwich and North Greenwich which have london Post codes and even then this has to be thought about. London per se has as its problem the fact that it is too big. I don't feel part of a capital even though we all foot the GLA bill.

    But this issue of the River. I can see their point- I mean at the subteranean depth of the tube network there is no river, it is largely irrelevant except to the people who were involved in the construction. Even the channel tunnel is to all intents and purposes dry and there is no channel. So perhaps it is not the mapmakers fault, rather the concept of London

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  • 37. At 3:13pm on 22 Sep 2009, GHRFC1843 wrote:

    I live in the "black hole" in southeast london, but find myself adequately served with overground train links as a result of the way the rail network was historically developed in the south of the city. I like the tube map, a classic piece of graphic design, but the maps showing the combined rail and tube with connections is far more useful. The biggest problem in london is cars. With such a comprehensive system of public transportation surely most car journeys (especially those within zones 1 and 2) are redundant. In comparison to rural areas with 1 bus or less per day, i don't think there is such a great need for car ownership.

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  • 38. At 2:04pm on 25 Sep 2009, Pendrea wrote:

    Toronto has ben omitted from the list. Lake Ontario gives the TTC map orientation . London's tube map should include the Thames to permit visitors to orientate themselves.

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