Wayfinding has many applications, and arguably the most important one is public transportation systems. Granted, there are many different ways to design such a system, and the politics and culture of the environment in which it will be integrated certainly plays a large role. Interestingly, often when we discuss transportation systems on the global scale, individuals are so quick to praise New York or London’s metro systems, Europe’s “high speed” rail system, or how “Uber is the most original new technology cities have seen”. All of these statements are subjective, but somehow they’ve become accepted fact, especially in the West, and I argue that anyone who gives European/American public transport that much praise is blissfully living in a bubble. As an international student who grew up in America and has visited most of its major cities, lived in China for two years, and is now studying in the Middle East, I’ve had the opportunity to use almost every public transportation system to exist. Old fashion taxis, the Maglev, high speed trains, shared bikes, shared mopeds, carpools, the bus, the metro, I have used them all, but nothing quite compares to the way China does public transport.
In particular, the metro system that runs through China’s most populous city, Shanghai, is one that I believe encapsulates a fantastic understanding of wayfinding.
This is an ode to the Shanghai Metro system.
An ode to the magnificent team of urban planners, engineers, and architects who built and continue to build this masterpiece.
An ode to all of the city’s people who, despite being 1 of 24 million other residents, manage to keep it the easiest to navigate, cleanest, safest, and convenient public transportation systems in the world.
An ode to its brilliant design, which is so intuitive that you take it for granted, that if you had grown up in Shanghai your entire life, you would never even know what “bad” metro design could even look like.
Shanghai is certainly not the first major city to build a metro system; in fact they were rather late to the game, but is still one of the most developed and fastest growing ones. It opened in 1993 with only a single line in Puxi, the district that encompasses the entire western half of the city. Since then it has continued to expand into a network of 19 lines and almost 400 stations, spanning over 800 kilometers of land. Its most recent expansion was a new line spanning across the Eastern and Western spheres, where I witnessed its opening in December of 2021. Basically, Shanghai’s metro is BIG. But what makes it so great?
First, I present the map.
Usually, I am not a fan of minimalist designs such as this one; however, it works here because of how complex the network is. Shanghai is a bustling megacity of 24 million (MILLION) people. Imagine the morning rush hour. The last thing a Shanghainese, or a visitor, wants to do is look at a finely detailed map. What I love about this map is that while it isn’t geographically accurate, you can look at the map and easily identify that it is Shanghai. This is made obvious by the thick, light blue line that runs across the map, representing the Huangpu river. For Chinese citizens and even visitors, it is well known that Shanghai is a coastal city that is divided into almost equal halves along the Huangpu river, the final portion of the Yellow River that empties into the East China Sea. The two halves of the city are Pudong and Puxi, literally translating to “West of Huangpu” and “East of Huangpu,” respectively. The two halves of the city and the river are symbolic of the city’s unique mix of old and new, foreign and familiar. In Puxi, you will find the oldest parts of Shanghai filled with French concessions, Dutch-style architecture, Buddhist temples, windy streets, and narrow apartment complexes. Contrastingly, in Pudong is where you will find the financial district of Lujiazui, home to the world’s second tallest building, Shanghai Towers, as well as skyscraper malls, expat neighborhoods, and of course, the NYU Shanghai campus. Thus, the river is essential to the visual identity of Shanghai, as it is not just a geographical symbol, but also a cultural symbol.
In addition to the river, another thing that makes this metro map easily recognizable as Shanghai is the way the routes are placed. As observed by the actual map of Shanghai, the city is not organized in a grid fashion, as with most American and European cities; instead, roads are organized in a more radial pattern, with major roads that circle the perimeter of the inner city to outer city and other major roads that intersect these roads that move outwards. Similarly, the metro lines mirror this layout, with Line 4 operating in a circle near Inner Ring Road and the rest of the lines intersecting it. When comparing the two side by side, the actual map and the metro map don’t look so different. I think this is one of the rare cases where the metro map can actually help you learn the geography of the actual city.
Second, the use of colors and consistency. As shown in the metro map, every line is named with a number and a color. All signs on roads and inside the stations are indicated with a square of the specified color and the number in the middle. In this way, there are no need for extra words to confuse you, especially if you are not a native Chinese speaker. Whether you are walking on the street, searching the map on your phone, or underground, you will always be able to find the station you are looking for just by this icon.
Inside the stations, dividers create temporary pathways to direct traffic during busy hours, with the specified color of course. Riders can simply follow these dividers, or sometimes a colored bar that wraps around the side walls to find the line that they need. This color coordination continues all the way up to the platform to the train, where a map of the line extends on an overhead sign that stretches the entire length of the platform. Inside the trains, seats, poles, and signs continue to be color coded in the respective line.
While this method of color coding might seem unoriginal, redundant even, I think it is rather brilliant, because it makes it extremely difficult to get lost, given that there are colors corresponding to a specific line. Conversely, in the rare case that you have made an error in your route, you will immediately know just by looking at your surroundings.
On a different note, the design of cars and stations are consistent when appropriate. As mentioned above, all lines are color coded; these colors remain consistent across different maps, such as the map on China’s Yelp app Dianping, and Baidu Maps, the equivalent of Google Maps. Additionally, all metro cars across all lines have almost identical layouts and furnishing, and all cars are equally up to date with the same technological features. For example, all metro stations will stick to the color theme of the respective lines.
There are also areas of the system that are inconsistent when appropriate. For example, the intervals of when the cars leave is dependent on the line and time of day: busier lines in the intercity range anywhere form 2-4 minutes, while lines that are less busy operate on slower intervals, usually around 5 minutes. Lines usually leave on longer intervals starting after 10pm and before 6am.
Though if there is one thing that separates the Shanghai metro system from other systems in other major cities, it is how accessible and inclusive it is. Despite the chaotic nature of the city, the metro is truly open and easy to use for everyone: children, families, the elderly, the disabled, etc. Namely, having all signs color coded makes it much easier for young children and the elderly to navigate, given that a large portion of people in China are still illiterate. Still, signs in both English and Mandarin are everywhere, and intercom messages are also spoken in English and Mandarin, making the metro extremely foreigner friendly. Inside the stations, you will always be able to find escalators, stairs, and elevators; walkways and car platforms have similar raised/textured surfaces found on sidewalks to aid the visually impaired, and car doors are extra wide to not only help with rush hour, but with the elderly and disabled.
The pricing of the tickets makes the metro the transportation method of choice. A ride on average is between 2-4 RMB, which is equivalent to 0.30-0.55 USD. At most, a ride is 11RMB, or just over $1.50. How a rider pays for the metro is also incredible convenient and accessible; physical passes, physical one way tickets, QR code passes, and ApplePay e-passes are just some of the many payment methods.
Finally, something I’ve learned to have immense appreciation for after living in different parts of the world is Shanghai’s attention to women’s safety. Like everywhere in China, metros are heavily monitored with security cameras, whether it be outside the stations, inside the cars, on the platform, etc. At the entrance of every station, there is a security check similar to those commonly found at train stations. Security guards roam the station, especially during rush hours and at night. As a result, crime on the metro is extremely low, if not non-existent. While some may feel that these measures are overly invasive, personally I am willing to sacrifice my privacy for safety. There are thousands of instances where women are harassed in public transport, and it is one of the main reasons why people fear using public transit. However, I feel secure in knowing that I can ride the metro alone, at any time of day, and not fear for my life.
Beyond just security, there are other aspects of the metro that ensure women’s general comfortability. Namely, unlike many metro systems, which usually have long, flat benches for people to sit freely, the Shanghai Metro has benches that have grooves and indentations that divide the bench into individual seats, which prevents people from sitting too close to one another or shoving their way into a small space. Individual cars also all have a courtesy seat next to the door, specially reserved for pregnant or disabled women. There is also free WiFi, such that in the case that you are alone and in an uncomfortable situation, you are able to contact anyone at any time.