Wayfinding in the Tokyo Subway System
August 30, 2019

Earler this month I was in Tokyo. As a foreigner who does not understand Japanese, I was very impressed with how intuitive the Tokyo Subway system (which is actually comprised of two different operators - Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway) was to navigate. I want to take a moment to talk about the wonderful wayfinding in the Tokyo subway, which is the act of knowing where you are and where you are going. Apart from the tiniest systems that only have one line, the Tokyo subway has been the easiest transit system I have used.

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.
— WikipediaCitation1

The Tokyo subway system was very easy to navigate because the lines were associated with a letter, and the stations along the line were all numbered.

For example, along the S line, the stations were numbered in linear order, such as S01, S02, S03, S04, etc. They also had names, but, as a foreigner visiting the city, it was easier to memorize where I wanted to go by a letter and number rather than a Japanese word I struggled to pronounce.

The signage was very intuitive too. For example, this sign clearly shows that I am standing on the platform for the H line (H17 in particular), and the trains that stop here will take me to any station between H01 and H17.

It is nice having straight forward signage. Here is where you are, and here is where you can reach from this location. The New York City subway leans towards information overload - too many signs and maps everywhere to understand what is going on. At least the NYC subway gives us a map annotated with "You are here."

It is common to see tourists studying the NYC subway map, because at first glance, a map does not tell you every station you can reach. For example, just because you are at a platform for a yellow line, does not mean you can reach every station along the yellow lines from here. The N, Q, R, and W trains are all yellow lines. So, it takes tourists some studying of the map, attempting to follow which letter goes where.

The numbering system is nice because you know in one direction the numbers go down, and in the other direction, the numbers go up. For example, here I am at the platform for C03. Trains were going in both directions at this platform, but there was a sign running longways down the middle of the platform. On one side, it showed;

I knew this was the side to wait for numbers going up. On the other side, it showed;

I knew this was the side to wait for numbers going down.

The signage was just so intuitive everywhere. You could not get lost.

In New York, directions are often labeled "Uptown bound", "Downtown bound" (which in Manhattan roughly correlate with North and South), or if the line crosses borough borders, signs will often say things such as "Queens bound". If you are tourist in Brooklyn who is unfamiliar with the subway lines, and you want to travel north within Brooklyn, it can be confusing if you need to get on a "Manhattan bound" train (especially because Manhattan is to the west!)


How do I travel north?

The numbering system was nice on the train, because when you were at station C04 and you wanted to get to C11, you knew you were only 7 stops away, and could count down without having to look at the map each time you heard a station name. There were displays above each door indicating what station you were at and what lines you could transfer to;

I also appreciated getting a little bit of warning before arriving at the station which side of the train the doors will open on;

The Tokyo subway system was nicely integrated into Google Maps. I never got lost once. Google Maps told me the best car to board so I would be closest to my exit or transfer. It would even tell me which exit to take, and the exits were numbered.

When you would approach a station, the screen above the door would let you know where you were relative to the exits and which direction you should walk.

The exits, like everything else, were clearly labeled. There was very little backtracking or getting turned around. Exiting at the nearest exit was greatly appreciated during the middle of a hot, humid, summers day.

The numbering system in Tokyo means that the same station can be known by multiple numbers where you can transfer. For example, this station is known as C07, M14, N07, and G07;

As a very nice courtesy, the signs pointing between the platforms also show how far of a walking distance it was. Even if you were not familiar with the units shown, it is reassuring and gives you a sense of distance when you are following the sign and it shows "300m", then shortly later 200m, 100m, 50m, and you are there.

The Tokyo subway system has distance based fares. The ticket machines at each station knew where they were located, so all you had to do was enter the line letter and station number you wanted to travel to, and it would display display the price.

What I have pointed out seems basic, as if common sense, but far too often, the small details I have covered here (such as station numbering, distances on the signs, the screens that tell you where the exits are, etc.) are missing on transit systems. It was nice being in a city where everything felt coherent and logical. There is a lot we can learn from observing places where things just work well.

  1. http://www.tokyojapanguide.tokyo/2017/03/tokyo-subway-map.html
  2. http://onlinelifestyle.co/map-of-grand-central-station/
  3. http://web.mta.info/nyct/service/nqrw/#getmap
  4. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/316377942550014048/