urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Lost and (way)found in London

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Chicago and London are two very different cities, perhaps no more so than in their spatial organizations. The former lays out a neat grid, systematic addressing and numbered streets, while learning the Knowledge of the latter’s recklessly wandering streets will literally change your brain.

I knew this before I left Chicago, but it was really brought home to me during a recent weeklong stay in London. Particularly because I didn’t have a smartphone or mobile data, I paid special attention to the wayfinding mechanisms of the British capital. Here are some thoughts on two features, the Legible London placards and the spider maps.

Learning Legible London
These are certainly not new and I’d heard of them before. (I actually once encountered a similar placard in downtown Omaha last summer, although downtown Omaha certainly sees fewer pedestrians at any time of day than central London).

What I didn’t realize, though, until I arrived, was the sheer ubiquity of the signs. It got to the point where I would realize I’d passed a placard while lost on a busy thoroughfare but not bother to turn around, since I was confident I’d encounter another one soon. To make a transit analogy, it was similar to not worrying about missing a train since you’re confident enough that another one will be there shortly — frequency is reassuring. It was also a pleasant surprise to find these signs in not-so-touristy but well-frequented parts of the capital, such as Shepherd’s Bush, though the placards were a bit more scattered there.

Since I pride myself on having a good sense of direction, helped in the Midwest by a liberal helping of compass-oriented grids, I’m a little ashamed to admit my other favorite feature of the Legible London placards was their orientation. Instead of facing north, the direction in which you are looking is up. This helped when I often found myself with a good sense of where I was but completely unsure of which road was the one I actually wanted.

The exception to these ubiquitous blue placards were the black wayfinding pillars in the City of London, aka the Square Mile. I suspect they predate the Legible London efforts, as I would imagine . I prefer the look of the latter, especially since I think there’s value in maintaining a cohesive graphical look for navigation, though it should be noted that the City of London does maintain a cohesive internal typographical look — their street signs are in the same font throughout and match the font on their black wayfinding placards.

I do like the naming of the prominent destinations above with minutes spent to walk there. Though I think on balance the 5- and 15-minute circles within the Legible London maps communicate this information more succinctly for a wider range of destinations, it is nice to be able to snap to a particular destination above. (I was heading to Aldgate myself when I took this.)

If it’s off the Northern line, can I call it a “black widow map?” Eh…?
My last evening in London, I decided on a whim to head to Parliament Hill. As it turns out this is not in Regent’s Park, I realized I actually wanted Hampstead Heath instead. A quick look at a map revealed there wasn’t any Tube station (I for some reason completely overlooked the Hampstead Heath Overground, although this ended up being for the better since there was a highly irregular service pattern due to TfL’s favorite “signal failure” bugaboo that night.)

From Baker St, I figured I’d head to either Swiss Cottage or Finchley Rd on the Jubilee line, since it looked like those were relatively close to the Heath, and hoped that when I got there I’d be able to finish the “last mile” of the trip. (Apologies for the poor quality of the camera phone shot.) And when I got to Swiss Cottage, where I’d never been, and searched for a spider map, it told me very clearly that the green line on right, which turns out to be the 46 bus, will take you straight to Hampstead Heath South End Green.

I think the key reasons the spider lines worked well for this journey included:

- I was aiming to use them to solve the “last mile” problem, in particular a Tube-bus transfer. I think in London, many tourists and non-Londoners, including me, initially only feel comfortable with the Underground. The spider maps help you to bridge that gap to buses, which often suffer from a reputation of being confusing and illogical.

- The maps identify the exact location of the bus stops.  Finding a bus stop is generally easy in a place like Chicago where there are bus stops every eighth of a mile and nearly all lines outside downtown/River North are aligned to the grid. But in a place like London where the “major streets” aren’t often at all clear, buses don’t follow a strict cardinal direction and bus stops aren’t as close together, it’s effective to be able to identify where the bus actually picks up.

- They mimic the reassuring familiar style of the Tube map. When you look at Beck’s diagram, you generally aren’t trying to get a sense of what the city looks like: you want to know how to get from stop A to stop B without needing to understand the underlying geography. The spider maps offer you a similar experience without making the bus system seem like a wildly complicated network, with labeled stops and cleanly drawn lines.

This, of course, doesn’t describe all or even most of the transport journeys in London, and notes on frequency or last buses would certainly come in handy. On the whole, though, I think these maps accomplish what they set out to do: for those who have a particular destination in mind and are using the Tube as their main means of transport, the spider maps help you to bridge that gap to the final destination. Their style omits extraneous information and presents you with a clean picture of how to make that jump from rail to bus. If you’re looking for a complete bus map of the city or the neighborhood, this isn’t it — but I don’t think that’s what they set out to do.

Finally, though, what is with…
The lack of convention of which side of the sidewalk to walk?! (This is separate from what side of the road traffic keeps to. I have many a “LOOK LEFT” and “LOOK RIGHT” painting on the ground to credit with my life.)

To be sure, Londoners were pretty militant about standing on the right in escalators, and there are some pretty long escalators, especially with the deep-level tubes. But on the street, there’s this sort of anarchic rhythm that reigns. Walking down Piccadilly or Regents St or even Uxbridge Road, on the other hand, was, well, like playing Toad’s Turnpike in Mario Kart.

Bet you didn’t see that comparison coming, eh?

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Written by Andrew ACG

March 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm

One Response

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  1. [...] City Guy has returned from London and is taking a (hopefully brief!) break from Jane Jacobs to examine Witold Rybczynski‘s City [...]


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