Issue 536 to

Urban Field Notes: Never Lost in London

A city of medieval streets has some of the world’s best wayfinding.

Urbanist Article

Transport for London (TfL) has created some of the best directional signposts of any city. Found every few blocks, they are handsome, double-sided, visually consistent and almost instantly informative pieces of street furniture that make walking a pleasure. They’re part of a wayfinding system called Legible London, which includes new street maps in Underground stations, web planning tools and, importantly, a constantly updated map database.

Legible London quickly answers the imperative wayfinding questions:

  • Where am I?
  • Where is my destination?
  • How long will my trip take?
  • And, for those exploring the city, what else of interest is nearby?

Legible London grew from a problem nearly every city faces: inconsistent, ineffective and confusing wayfinding signs. A survey found that the central zone alone had “at least 32 separate wayfinding systems for pedestrians,” and it’s no surprise that 80 percent of those surveyed found existing street signs confusing, uninformative and unpredictable due to issues like inconsistent destination names and differing information and design across the systems.

In 2005, then Mayor Ken Livingstone (who also brought congestion pricing to the city’s center) mandated that wayfinding be easier by the 2012 Olympics, and that London would be one of the world’s most walk-friendly cities by 2015. That meant helping the one in seven Londoners who couldn’t find their way around the city, as well as the one in four who worried about getting lost.

Legible London was loosely built on a plan from Bristol, with TfL working with a private information design company now called Applied. The project piloted in the West End, where it was meant to help revitalize the famed Oxford, Regent and Bond shopping streets — an area, not incidentally, where 200 million visitors spend over $7.5 billion a year and 87 percent of people walk. It began with a change of focus, explicitly on “the needs of pedestrians, rather than [of] providers promoting a particular route or destination … telling people [only] what they need to know when they need to know it.” The pilot encouraged walkers’ “mental mapping” — the instinctive, mind’s eye recognition of where we are, the more often we traverse a route.

Research exposed the flaws in existing wayfinding aids; road maps were designed for drivers, not pedestrians. In central London, between more than half of the Underground’s adjacent stations, it’s quicker to walk to one’s destination than to take the Tube. The Tube map tells a different story, however, and few realized that from Covent Garden, for example, it’s faster to walk to nine of its ten adjacent stations.

Redesigned maps, along with prototyped, tested and refined street signs, dramatically increased both visitors’ and residents’ willingness to walk. Those in Underground stations were oriented to aboveground destinations. Maps on street signposts broke the convention that north is up — instead, up is the direction you’re facing as you look at the map.

A huge success in Central London, the program is rapidly spreading through the city’s 32 locally governed boroughs. Livingstone’s vision is being realized. Vancouver, British Columbia and the University of British Columbia have implemented variations of London’s street signposts. Cities worldwide should take notice.

Michael Alexander is an urbanist and co-chair of SPUR’s Advisory Council.