Mini Metro will show you the science behind designing a subway

New York City initially rejected Massimo Vignelli's subway map and ended up throwing it away, even though it allowed passengers to clearly tell which line is which. The subway had used colours on the map before but what set this one apart is that it used a different colour for each line in the system, instead of what we have today with the 4, 5 and 6 lines being green and the 1, 2 and 3 lines all being red.

For city-goers, the New York subway map as it is today might be easy to read, but for tourists and foreigners, it's a mess that's in need of a redesign. This is where Mini Metro comes in, allowing players to plan subway systems across a variety of cities including New York, London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Mumbai and more. Each line has a different colour, making it incredibly easy to distinguish from separate subway services, especially those that run on the same tracks. The game is minimalist and elegant, while easy to understand, and teaches some basic concepts like overcrowding and building transfer options into a system.

In Toronto the subway map is thankfully a lot less complicated and confusing than in other cities (I'm talking about the Green Line in Boston) where if you forget to look at the destination sign, you might end up on the wrong part of the city. 

The game is simple and is about making subway maps by connecting stations with lines. You start off with only a couple stations, connecting them with lines of different colours before more stations pop up to connect to. In the end your goal is simple: keep the system running smoothly and efficiently while the transit system explodes in size and usage. The system you're designing is supposed to seem like it's planned by someone else; typically housing developments and transit would be planned hand-in-hand, but not in this case.

Playing a game like this is a great idea for transit riders because it gives them a look, albeit a simplified one, at what goes into transit planning. Then, just maybe, when people hop on the subway in their city they'll have a better appreciation for the planning that goes into making their commute a success.

Overcrowding

 In New York, it's hard to build a transit system that reaches all riders in a fast and frequent manner, while still being efficient in getting people around.

In New York, it's hard to build a transit system that reaches all riders in a fast and frequent manner, while still being efficient in getting people around.

One of the most significant issues when designing a subway system is designing one with enough transfer options for all riders, which is why in Toronto the TTC decided to join the two Spadina stations together, to reduce crowding at St George. Our subway system is, however, facing a bottleneck at Bloor-Yonge station, which is reaching capacity and will likely hit it in the coming years. Sure, SmartTrack could help but that's years away and throwing some buses in to help wouldn't do much because they have much less capacity.

This is where adding a line that bypasses the main downtown interchange stations might come in handy, like the Downtown Relief Line that Toronto is trying to get built. In the image above you can see how all lines connect in downtown Montreal which is quite dangerous engineering; say for instance that the station has to shut down because of an electrical failure, because then all customers would need to find an alternative way home.

Bringing it back to reality, when there is severe overcrowding on a line, people can generally find an alternative route home on a bus or streetcar, but this isn't always an option for everybody and is a hassle for customers.

Express trains

 Osaka is different than many other cities in the game (think London and Montreal) in that it has "express lines," or lines that operate alongside other ones but that operate skip-stop services, similar to the setup in New York City.

Osaka is different than many other cities in the game (think London and Montreal) in that it has "express lines," or lines that operate alongside other ones but that operate skip-stop services, similar to the setup in New York City.

There's a difference between local trains, express trains and regional express rail, and it's an important difference to know. Local trains stop at all stations on a line, while express ones, like those found in New York stop at major interchanges and high-traffic stations only. Regional express rail is a relatively newer mode in some cities, but is an usually electrified system, such as GO Transit or the LIRR, that stops at stations spread further out than subway stops.

Paris is known for its RER system because its subway stops are so close together that it's time consuming to take it long distances, which is why some of the subway lines run parallel to a RER line, making both local and long-distance travel possible and accessible for all.

In larger cities, express lines can get confusing for both tourists and people who are new to the city, with people not understanding the difference between the two. Careful planning on a city's part is necessary for this sort of setup and these express lines are generally only installed in special cases where the ridership patterns call for it.

Planning for the right mode

 Montreal showed us the importance of allowing for different transfer options. When designing a subway system, riders need multiple ways to get to the same destination in case there are delays or closures on the line.

Montreal showed us the importance of allowing for different transfer options. When designing a subway system, riders need multiple ways to get to the same destination in case there are delays or closures on the line.

In the map above, Montreal can be seen as the main island with lines branching out into Laval (the upper island) and into other communities to the northwest. This blue line which is spread across all three areas would be ideal as a subway in the downtown section, but in real-life would be too expensive and attract too few riders to build out this far. That's exactly where commuter rail and bus services come in.

Montreal does, in fact, have commuter rail lines spreading out into the suburbs, but these are generally only in peak-direction and at peak-times only. The result is a service that works only for workers and employees working downtown, but not for passengers looking to get out of the city for the day or who have to reverse-commute to get to work. Bringing all-day commuter rail or bus service to communities in situations like this, like what GO Transit is doing in the GTHA over the next decade. This isn't saying cities need to build commuter rail networks with ultra-frequent headways, but extending something into surrounding communities can make a difference for people commuting to the city, and most European cities are great at this.

The verdict

The cost-effectiveness of different parts in the game is something that sets it apart but is a welcome and simpler way of understanding the mechanics behind it. 

In real-life, transit planners would never be forced to choose between a new rail line and train carriage because, obviously, one is much more expensive than the other. Subway extensions cost hundreds of millions of dollars per kilometre, whereas trains would cost a fraction of that.

Though there's many different educational standpoints on the game and things to learn from it, the ease and accessibility of it for both novices and experts makes it an enjoyable game for everybody. There's so much that goes into planning and running an effective subway system, and hopefully this makes you take a different look at things the next time you're riding the train.

Mini Metro is available to download on iOS, Android and on MacOS and Windows through Humble Bundle.