News & Politics

Hacking the Subway

The law says you're allowed to look at the map online, but you're not allowed to create a digital version for your iPod.
The first few times I came to New York, I refused to ride the subway. Those were in the pre-cleanup days, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani started painting over the graffiti and busting kids for fare-skipping, but I didn't avoid clattering down those scum-caked stairs because I was afraid of hooligans. Frankly, I was just afraid of getting lost.

The New York City subway system is a bewildering maze of numbers and letters. Navigation is via borough name or region rather than direction -- you don't take a train east, you take it to Brooklyn. If you want to go north, hop on a number or letter heading to the Bronx, or possibly uptown, or possibly to Harlem. The signs in the subway stations are also alienatingly detailed, listing express routes and late-night routes alongside regular routes in a perverse, run-together way that makes catching the right train seem unlikely at best.

However, after deciding to stay in New York for a month -- that's a whole different story, involving a borough called Staten Island that can only be reached via ferry -- I realized that my allergy to the subway was getting stupid. I had to figure out a way to hack the system if I was going to get from Staten Island to what people in Manhattan and Brooklyn would call real places.

Part of the problem is that the underground railways I'm used to, in San Francisco, are just ridiculously simple -- some might say infuriatingly so. There are four lines, each with its own color. There are big, simple, bright maps in every station. Trains don't turn into other trains or replace each other randomly, the way they do in New York. Recently in New York I attempted to catch the correct A line train to JFK Airport (there are two or three A lines, and only Far Rockaway goes to JFK). An A train pulled up, and I asked a police officer standing inside if it was going to the airport. "Yup," he said, just as the door closed on my arm. He didn't even move -- just left me yanking my arm out of the door and yowling as the train pulled away. Fucking New York.

I persevered, however, with the help of a somewhat outdated subway map my friend Wendy gave me when I first arrived in the city. By the time I'd used it to navigate a trip to Coney Island, as well as to various places on the Lower East Side, in SoHo, and uptown, the map was soggy and torn. Plus, the longer I was in the city, the more self-conscious I got when I had to unfold the damn thing on the subway platform. I wasn't exactly a tourist anymore -- what tourist would live on Staten Island, anyway? And yet I was stuck looking like one with my big old subway map. Couldn't I just get some kind of electronic map on my PDA or something? Turns out I could -- if New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority weren't obsessed with hoarding its digital maps.

A couple of months ago, a guy named William Bright was making maps of subway systems available for iPods on his Web site, Ipodsubwaymaps.com. They were great maps, and a great resource for dorks like me who would rather ogle their iPods than unfold dirty old paper things. But Bright got a cease and desist order from the MTA saying he was violating copyright by making these maps available. (He got a similar notice from San Francisco's BART.) That's right -- you're allowed to look at the map online, print it out, and carry a copy around, but you're not allowed to create a digital version of the map for your iPod. So Bright had to take down all his great MTA iPod maps.

To avoid further harassment, he started designing his maps from scratch instead of taking the most accurate maps directly from the sites of the MTA and BART. (It's worth noting that some cities, like Chicago, allowed him to use their maps without sending him a nastygram.) So Bright's MTA subway maps for iPod are now available; they just aren't necessarily very accurate, since he designed them himself. People keep e-mailing him with fixes. Since I don't want to get lost in some obscure part of Brooklyn, I'm sticking with my annoying paper map for now.

The whole rotten deal got me thinking about all the strange ways in which free speech is being curtailed in the United States. I need maps to get around in cities the same way I need free information to navigate through social space. When municipal governments are using copyright law, of all things, to censor the public distribution of public maps, where the hell are we headed when it comes to political speech?
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is still trying to figure out the subtle differences between the 4 and 5 lines.
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