TTC subway map in Chinese

Recently, Statistics Canada released a report that analysed a number of trends across the country, and one of the findings showed Toronto to be a growing multicultural city, even more diverse than Paris and New York (Torontonians often state this fact but never quote — or know — the source).

So when I saw the above map of the TTC’s subway system, displayed entirely in Chinese, I wondered why someone (like the TTC, for example) hadn’t done this before [ click on map for larger version, and Wikipedia entry ].

There are obvious stations across the city that could use multi-lingual displays of the subway, streetcar and bus system. Christie and Yonge-Sheppard stations could certainly use Korean maps, High Park could have Russian, Pape with Greek, and so on. Union Station could have numerous languages. It’s certainly not an easy endeavor for the TTC to take up, but something worth exploring. Especially if we really want to see our city as a true meeting place of cultures and peoples.


  1. If the TTC wants to improve service for people with limited English — a noble goal — their first step should be to ask such people what the barriers are today. Well-intentioned English-speaking people like you or I will get it wrong.

    The TTC already produces a multi-language version of the Ride Guide with English maps but all the fare info and “helpful” safety tips in a number of languages; similar info is buried on their web site.

    From my own experience as a tourist in places where I didn’t speak the local language, maps were not the problem. In Tokyo, I would have been lost with an English-only map because I needed to match line and station names to the Japanese-language signs. I couldn’t have pronounced where I was going, but I could recognize its characters. I’d have been stuck, though, if there was some crucial re-routing information on a Japanese-only service advisory.

  2. Matt L >> you’re right about asking what the barriers are. But it’s maps like these that help break the English speaking majority mentality that there are other ways, and needs, to serve the public.

  3. Excuse the daft question, but what would something like ‘Osgoode’ (etc) translate to? Would it be a phonetic thing, or would it be replaced with a more descriptive name?

  4. As an art project, it would be neat to do the subway map in a number of different languages and place these in all the ad poster frames in a given station. (How’s that for “recontextualization”, Thorarinn Ingi Jonsson?)

    Of course my main problem with the subway map is not that it is only in English. It’s that it has no streetcar lines on it, thereby visually confining what should be North America’s largest light rail network to “no better than a bus” status.

  5. I agree with Matt L. and Mickey. We need to start thinking about our diverse communities as a strength not an obstacle. Sure, it would be expensive to translate signs and maps in many languages but multi-culturalism/-lingualism should be played up as a tourist attraction, as something that makes Toronto great and unique.

  6. Who determines what group/language is worthy of its own translated signs and maps? In the Chinese subway map, is there a Mandarin map and a Cantonese map? Is there a map for every language that the TTC offers its customer service in (based on that neat poster from a couple of years ago)? Does a particular community group step up to pay for the signs? Is someone going to enter a subway station and face a wall of maps in different languages? Perhaps this is best suited to a touch-screen type of set up to aid travellers. Touch screens offering different language info could be quite powerful. Then again, “Osgoode” is “Osgoode” in Ukrainian, Gaelic or Urdu.

  7. Rob,

    Cantonese and Mandarin (and other Chinese languages) have one written language, while there are several spoken primary languages and many dialects still. A literate Mandarin speaker and literate Cantonese speaker should both be able to read the same text.

    I like the idea of some signage in multiple languages, as long as it doesn’t create too much visual clutter or threaten the classic TTC-font signage.

    Touch screens would be a great idea.

    And for adding streetcars to a subway map, while an interesting idea, I wouldn’t want to see the notorious 501 Queen Car shown on a map meant to show the rapid and reliable subway. Too much clutter – pick up a system map for that.

  8. Not to digress too much, as maybe this is worthy of a separate Spacing post, but I don’t see how the long road to improving streetcar service can be tackled without first putting it into the public’s mind that the streetcars already exist as a rail network.

    Look at a rail transit map in Philly, Boston, San Diego, Portland, SF, etc… all include streetcars in some way on their “rapid transit” maps, even though all have some sort of mixed running with traffic. Melbourne has trams on their “rail” map but not buses, and their streetcars are as befuddled by car traffic as ours. A change in thinking is needed. Do it in a reduced way, with arrows, unlabeled stops, whatever, but get those streetcars on the map. Someone already did a great example of this on the “Toronto streetcar system” entry on Wikipedia – look it up.

    Adding streetcar lines to the subway map will be a huge benefit to tourists (who can’t read the complex Ride Guide and only read maps they see on the subway cars anyways), and on a psychological level it will get Torontonians to see the potential in their neglected steel tracks. Maybe then we will get the political will to make changes to traffic rules, stop frequency, fare policy, station design and other aspects that would improve service.

  9. Sean: it’s not the fact that it’s a common written language, it’s the fact that phonetic translations of English terms into Mandarin and Cantonese sometimes results in different translations; something in Mandarin that sounds like its English counterpart may be non-sensical in Cantonese, even though it’s the same written term.

    For example, “Los Angeles” is translated into Mandarin as “lwoh san gee” (not the official pinyin, but whatever), but the same characters in Cantonese result in “lok cham gay”. Similarly, in Cantonese, the term for Los Angeles is “loh sang”, which then doesn’t translate back to Mandarin with the same meaning. Then there is the fact that there are more than two Chinese dialects spoken. Where does reasonable accomodation end in this case?

    This map is a bad idea because it requires so many versions to accomodate the languages. Perhaps a better way would just be to go with the St. George signage experiment and number/colour-code the stations and lines instead.

  10. Streetcars on the “rapid transit” map is getting pretty ridiculous. Steel wheels and rails does not equal rapid transit. Transit that operates significantly more quickly than a regular surface route equals rapid transit. If you’re going to put any surface route on the “rapid transit” map, it had better live up to the advertising. I don’t think St. Clair or Spadina do that, and Queen definitely doesn’t.

  11. I agree with Brent If anything, the GO lines should be shown on the map, like Montreal does with the thin lines for AMT routes, or Paris for the RER. (Of course, that might be tremendously misleading to those who think that they can hop over and get on a GO train just any old time.)

  12. Ben – yep, “Osgoode” is translated phonetically. 🙂

  13. Disparishun:

    Well you can kind of do that on the Lakeshore line. . . That’s why the maps should also differentiate between the commuter train lines and the Lakeshore, which is regional rail.

  14. From my own experience as a tourist in places where I didn’t speak the local language, maps were not the problem. In Tokyo, I would have been lost with an English-only map because I needed to match line and station names to the Japanese-language signs.

    This is exactly right.

    I had a similar experience in Kiev, where the cyrillic script produces words that are unrecognizable to an English speaker. I had an English map, so that the subway stations were labelled in English. This bore no relationship to the stations’ Ukrainian names. Hell, I thought I could look for a word of similar length with the same/similar first letter, but not even the *length* of the names was similar.

  15. On the subject of streetcars, I agree with Uskyscraper. The lines should be treated as a seperate entity on the transit maps, regardless of service reliablity.

  16. How long until transit info is universalized? If you check out the new edition of Transit Maps of the World, you’ll see that the depiction of transit networks can operate from a basic set of graphic principles. Coloured lines, dots and circles…

    Not so the text, unless you count the worldwide trend toward offering an English version of a transit map or website.

    People travel the globe and can’t be expected to learn an entire language just to visit a place for three nights.

    So how long until transit info is harmonized, similar to the effort in the US to offer road/transit choices via the phone number 511. There’s a common template, and presumably this format could allow users to access a Spanish version .. une version francaise, then Portuguese, etc.

    How long until anyone anywhere can find out how to get from Grand Central Station to the Port Authority in one of 50 languages, via internet, phone or whatever?

    I say less than 50 years. I’ll bet you 500 drachma it’s sooner. Oh wait — there’s no drachma no more…

    PS: Let’s start with pushing GTA transit agencies to come up with a consistent timetable, and then to put them in the same place on their websites…

  17. Annika: You are correct that the phonetic translations of English terms into Mandarin and Cantonese can sometimes results in different translations – but these differences are usually very minor and the majority of literate Chinese speakers/writers would be able to recognize both text.

    You used the translation of Los Angeles as an example. Most Chinese readers would understand Los Angeles as both “lok cham gay” and “loh sang”. These differences are similar to the English’s of “elevators” and “lifts” – same thing, same meaning and just different words, but still understandable to all English speakers. All Chinese dialects would still use the same characters.

    There are actually two versions of written Chinese: traditional (which includes all the strokes in the character and predominately used by Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan) and simplified (which does not include all strokes and is used predominately by Chinese from Mainland China). The map posted here is in simplified Chinese, but most literate Chinese readers would be able to make out the characters as well.

    Also, we have to remember that there is no perfect translation either. If you look at Queen’s Park Station on the map, the Chinese translation has it as “Ontario Legislative Building”. The words are different but the meaning is still there.

    Having different language maps is an excellent idea but I also agree with Matt’s point: the maps would be useless if there are no similar translations at each of the stations. Perhaps a better idea would be to include both English and the other language on the map, to bear some relationship between the map and the actual signs inside the stations.

  18. This map was published on Chinese Wikipedia article about the subway in Toronto ( It’s possible to choose whether you want the pages there displayed in traditional or simplified characters, and this map will change as well, according to your preferences.

    Another map made by the same user is the one for Oslo subway in Norway (

  19. Can you say “Tower of Babel”? I can and I just did. Somebody had to. This is a very low priority.

    I would like to see subway systems all over arrange some kind of reciprocal agreement so that you could use your pass in whatever city you were in. We have the techmology.

    As for showing streetcar lines on subway schematics – sure, how about with dotted lines? But the current diagrams are so simplified that they would have to be totally redone in order to fit all the streetcar lines legibly.

  20. Since the maps should be able to direct the non-English speaking tourist (or resident for that matter) to attractions and points of interest/importance, pictorial representations of the attractions at their locations should be added (i.e. to create tourist attraction theme maps). These thematic maps should be incorporated into the trip planner tool that the TTC intends to include on its revamped website.
    The Toronto tourist industry has determined that despite Toronto’s reputation as being “the most multicultural city in the world”, the services and information packages available to tourists do not adequately reflect this. The ideas under discussion here can contribute to improving the situation if acted upon.

  21. Ed: How long until transit info is universalized? (…)PS: Let’s start with pushing GTA transit agencies to come up with a consistent timetable, and then to put them in the same place on their websites…

    It could be universalized tomorrow.

    Last year the TTC put out a call for tenders to initiate a huge, fancy, expensive redesign of their Web site.

    That was the wrong approach. The right approach would have been to get their information infrastructure in order in order to begin publishing their transit information — timetables, asset classes and locations (stations, bus stops, routes, vehicle information) — in a standard, real-time data format.

    Getting the data out there would have easily enabled third-party developers anywhere in the world to localize it into whatever languages they pleased. And, of course, to combine it with whatever other transit, tourist, or other geographically-aware data they liked. But, rather than a Web 2.0 data-centric approach, the TTC leapt boldly into a costly and obsolescence-prone Web 1.0 static redesign.

    Metrolinx could still step up and play the data-standardization role by selecting data standard formats, from among those available and being adopted worldwide, and requiring the GTA transit authorities to publish real-time data that conforms with those standards.

    But, well, Metrolinx can’t get its act together to put up a Web site, so what are the chances of getting it to act as the GTA’s transit information CTO? For that to happen, serious pressure — as the result of media attention, natch — would be required. Hey…

  22. We really should have a separate topic on streetcars/maps. Great points made here, many of which illustrate the problems well. However, I’m sticking to “steel wheels and rails equals something more than a bus.” It is really important for Torontonians to learn from other cities and stop thinking like they live in the only city with transit in North America. That may have almost been the case twenty-five years ago, but not anymore. If all these other places are putting their _streetcars_ onto their maps, Toronto should to. Case closed.

  23. Rather than use words – use language neutral symbols. A subway map could be constructed with each station represented by the tile on the wall. A person looking at the map could then look at the platform at any point and know if they are at the right place.

    Oh wait, that’s not possible because the TTC are busy screwing with the historic designs with artificial stone and the like.

  24. uSkyscraper… Philly, Boston, San Diego, Portland, SF, etc. all include streetcars in some way on their “rapid transit” maps because they all in some way have significant sections of true rapid transit, either through downtown tunnels (historical streetcar-subway… would apply here if we’d built the Queen subway proposal from the 40s) — or because they’re true modern LRT lines that are separate from traffic in the burbs. (In fact, the Portland rapid transit map only shows the LRT lines, and purposely doesn’t include their streetcar, because it has a completely different role.)

    TTC, on the other hand, has the Bay Street Tunnel…

  25. Although it is nice to look at, there are numerous problems with a chinese-translated map. Primarily because there is no standard in the translated names. This is a recognized problem world-wide. Even the various news media have trouble uniformly translating George W. Bush’s name in the various Chinese dialects.

    In this map, some station names are translated phonetically (eg. Leslie), some are translated based on the meaning (eg. Summerhill), some are a mix of the two (eg. High Park), and some have a completely different translation (eg. Queen’s Park being Ontario Legislative Building).

    Meanwhile the uniformity of the station names in Chinese is extremely poor. King, Queen, Dundas, College Stations are translated as King Street, Queen Street, Dundas Street, College Street, yet Wellesley, Bathurst, Christie, and numerous others don’t have the word “street” associated with their names. In addition, Scarborough Centre is translated as Scarborough Shopping Centre.

    I do believe that his effort is worth praising, however, most Chinese living in Toronto would not even recognize some of the names of the translated stations as listed on the map. Which renders the worthiness of the map totally useless.

    If the map was created in a way, so that when people are reading it in Chinese, can somehow pronounce the words such that they are similar to the English equivalent (translated phonetically for all stations), it would be much more useful in terms of asking someone for directions. If a Chinese tourist armed with this chinese map asked an English-speaking Torontonian where “Mue-guai-gook” (which the map creator translated as Rose Valley) is, it would certainly lead to lots of confusion. Where as a phonetic translation with the characters sounding like “Rosedale” would be much more suitable for navigation purposes.

  26. I think translating names of subway stations is incredibly silly, unless you also translate all street and building names as well basically establishing an entirely independent foreign-language naming system… and what would be the point of that? As someone who is an immigrant, and is around a lot of immigrants, including older ones who only came recently, don’t speak English very well, and aren’t likely to improve its knowledge, let me tell you that immigrants do not translate street names, or building names, or subway station names. And are capable of fairly quickly learning the English alphabet and the basic correspondence between letter combinations and sounds.

  27. couldn’t you post a map in english with the same size???

Comments are closed.