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How the NYC Subway Was Saved By a Typeface

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People navigate the stairs of the Kew Gardens subway station Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
While the New York City subway system can seem a bit confusing to newcomers, the complex web of stations, tracks and signals was a game-changer when construction began more than 100 years ago. Since it's initial design, the system has gone through a number of changes and facelifts making it the vast, efficient, and sometimes intimidating transportation giant it is today. 

How Did We Get Here? 

In 1904, Interborough Rapid Transit line (IRT) was born, becoming the city’s first official underground commuter train line. The independently-run IRT ran from City Hall in downtown Manhattan all the way uptown to Harlem, stopping at 28 stations along the way. A year later, the line expanded into the Bronx and by 1915, the line was running through Brooklyn and Queens as well.
It was the perfect solution to overcrowding on city streets and an alternative for elevated trains, so more began to break ground.
The subway in New York on November 21, 1939. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)The subway in New York on November 21, 1939. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
In 1915, a new subway line emerged out of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which was later taken over by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). In 1932, the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad line (IND) opened along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, becoming the first city-operated subway line. 

City Transportation Booms

Transportation options were booming across the city, but these new subway systems were completely independent of each other, and here is where the makings of the complicated New York City subway system, as we know it, begins.
One of the big differences was that the types of trains used on the systems weren't the same. IRT subways were enclosed metal cars while BMT went with wood-framed cars. 
The difference in subway trains didn’t necessarily add to the confusion of navigating New York City, but the second difference, the varying typeface styles between the systems, did.
Credit: Jeff Greenberg / Contributor from Getty ImagesCredit: Jeff Greenberg / Contributor from Getty Images
While typeface size and style can seem like a minute detail to the average person trying to successfully navigate an area, experts say easy to read, a uniform typeface is more memorable.
By 1940, New York City purchased the IRT and BMT lines and merged them with the IND after they all faced a number of financial woes. 
While the systems were connected on paper, there were no moves made to create uniform branding across the board.

MTA Takes Over NYC Transit

A sense of continuity across the lines would not come for nearly 30 years until the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was formed in 1968. The newly-established agency oversaw all transportation operations in the city.
At that point, there still remained the issue of trying to make the now-united subway lines look the same. To remedy that, the MTA hired design firm Unimark, which began implementing signage changes at city subway stations. The typeface the firm went with was called Standard Medium.
[example of typeface]
The selection of the typeface turned out to be somewhat of a surprise as the similar, and more popular, 1950s style Helvetica was beginning to take off. It was being used by brands like Jeep and American Airlines, but Unimark decided that due to contractual issues and the cost of creating a massive number of new signs in Helvetica, it just wasn’t worth the price tag.

Subway Signage Is Uniform After 85 Years

So it was done. The city’s subway signs were decked out in Standard Medium typeface but that lasted just about a decade. In 1980, a revised subway manual called for Helvetica to be used whenever a ‘J’ appeared in discs or diamonds, shapes used to denote part- or full-time service.
This typeface change would mark the beginning of New York City subway signs as we know them today. By 1989, an updated subway manual called for Helvetica to be used across the board, and not just for the letter ‘J.’ 
While the fascinating history of the city’s subway system type has been etched off of many station walls and signs, commuters can still trek to locations like the City Hall station to catch a glimpse of old New York.
Video produced by Christine Beldon. Article written by Lawrence Banton.
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