Even were it not one of the busiest public transit systems in the world, transporting 19 million passengers annually, the London Underground would surely be among the most famous. It has appeared in dozens of British films from the ‘20s onward. It’s inspired artwork in the Tate, fan weblogs, and its own museum. The history of the Tube, which began as several independent lines, is often fascinatingly tawdry. The Bakerloo Line, for instance, was begun by British industrialist Whitaker Wright in the 1890s; when Wright’s commercial empire collapsed he was put on trial for fraud and committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill, leaving American subway magnate Charles Yerkes, himself having been convicted and jailed for misappropriation of funds in the 1870s, to finish the line. But the fact that a subway system an ocean away from me is instantly recognizable has nothing to do with skullduggery in its past; it’s the result of the creative works of two men, Edward Johnston and Harry Beck. Johnston was an Arts and Crafts designer and teacher at the Royal College of Art. Although he designed a number of fonts, today his fame rests chiefly on the font he created for the Underground. Today commercially available from the P22 foundry as Johnston Underground, the font (designed in collaboration with Eric Gill, today best known for Gill Sans) became the face of the London Underground, appearing on signs, tickets, and the famous roundels. The font was actually replaced in 1980, but the replacement font updated the old without making any dramatic alterations, no doubt pleasing tourism officials and anyone needing to slap together a identifiable symbol of London.

The Tube Map is just as identifiable as Johnston’s roundel, if not more so. It has inspired countless imitators and parodies, from maps of London’s "real" underground, including Roman sewers, to Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, a version of the Tube Map with names of celebrities replacing those of the stations. The farcical game of Mornington Crescent uses the Tube Map as a playing board. Designed by Harry Beck, a draftsman who had shown no previous signs of genius, the map was a brilliant creation. Beck realized that since the map was not being used for navigation, he could cut it to the bone, using only horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines to represent the winding path of the trains. All surface features save the Thames could be eliminated. General orientation needed to be preserved, but his map could radically simplify its representation of the topology of London, fudging its representation of distance and route in the interest of clarity. The map could ignore the territory, so long as it made it clear what line a rider had to take from what station to get where she was going. Although he revised the map repeatedly, this realization, in conjunction with simple color-coding, was the breakthrough that made Beck’s map revolutionary, a lasting design icon and the model for maps like the District of Columbia’s Metrorail. In the words of design historian Philip Meggs, as quoted in an essay on the semiotics of the Tube Map (link via The Superfluous Man), Beck had created the "prototype of the modern map."

The London Underground has, to some extent, fallen upon hard times. The Underground and London’s general mass transit were consistantly underfunded for decades. Proposed (partial) transfer of ownership to a public-private partnership was criticized by a number of London’s leftist political leaders, including "Red" Ken Livingstone. Livingstone, now mayor of London, has embarked on an ambitious attempt to reshape the city’s traffic patterns, encourage broader use of the Tube, and raise money to improve public transit. Transit policy wonks worldwide are watching the outcome of his congestion charges, hoping to discover a means by which to reduce rush-hour automobile traffic throughout the developed world. So far, results have been good. London is getting tens of thousands of pounds a day, much of it earmarked for transit upgrades. The number of cars entering the city center has dropped markedly. The Tube is getting a few more riders, some trying to beat the morning rush by riding earlier. The Tube Map is seventy years old, and although a handful of stations have been abandoned since 1933, the broad contours it defines so elegantly should be good for decades more.