Navigating the best route round wayfinding

Q: In London, the wayfinding system is credited with increasing transport sharing and a decreasing reliance on the car. How did they make the connection?

A: The London wayfinding system, branded Legible London, was one of several developments targeted at reducing car usage in central London but was the first significant information campaign targeted directly at pedestrians.  Transport for London (TfL), London’s transport executive, realised by the early 2000’s that overcrowding in the London Underground system combined with high private car usage was slowing down mobility in the Capital. 

Expanding the Underground in central London wasn’t an option because the system was already dense with frequent services.  Studies by TfL on usage of both the Underground and London Bus services showed that a large percentage of trips taken were for short journeys, sometimes only one or two stations (or stops) long. 

It was also analysed that expanding bus services in central London would be possible if private car usage went down, so the well-advertised London Congestion Charge was introduced for cars in 2003. What some people don’t know, or may not remember, is that TfL added many new bus services and increased service frequency right around the time of introducing the congestion charge.  Bus usage went up by around 20% in central London as a consequence with Underground usage staying around the same.

Legible London was introduced by TfL a few years later (2007-2009) and was part of several efforts to encourage and increase walking in London.  Research suggested that many people lacked confidence in walking as well as the understanding that short journeys could easily be made on foot instead of by Underground, bus, or private car.  Several key decisions made Legible London – a highly designed and developed system of information – a success:

·         Pedestrian wayfinding information was coordinated with TfL’s other travel information (for bus, Underground, Cycle Hire and other London transport services) to provide consistent messages and familiarity;

·         Signs were laid out as networks to provide confidence and predictability;

·         The sign schemes covered large areas to encourage longer walks and a better understanding of London;

·         Map information, a critical part of Legible London, was rigorously checked for accuracy to provide confidence in the system;

·         Public transit access (primarily stops and stations) are prominent features on the map to help users understand what services they are close to.

Legible London, based on TfL design integration, planning and implementation, became a multi-modal wayfinding system nearly from its inception.  This provided enormous user benefits, mainly through encouraging walking for shorter journeys as well as better use of the public transit system.

Q: In some places, like London, financing and decision making are centralised. How can wayfinding succeed when there are multiple agencies governing over various parts of the transportation system?

A: It’s true that London, through TfL, has realised noticeable benefits with consistent mobility and wayfinding information across all transit modes, including walking and biking.  In cities where rails and stations are run by one agency, streets and public space by another and other transit modes by yet other agencies, effective wayfinding initiatives are extremely challenging to get started or to be made sustainable.  Where this has worked, awareness and vision has been achieved at the highest political levels regarding the importance that improved mobility, public space and information has on creating, improving and sustaining great places.

This is usually a step-by-step process and manifests uniquely from city to city.  New York City began a transformation more than 10 years ago realising opportunities to improve public interaction with public space by simply closing off car traffic and transforming road spaces to people spaces (eg Times Square). The city expanded to parklets and better design of public street furniture – eventually embracing design and development of a city-wide pedestrian wayfinding system in 2011.  The wayfinding initiative was done through the City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) in partnership with local business improvement districts.  The New York City subways and buses are, however, operated and managed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).  Some early bridging was done at high political levels and a couple of MTA projects were coordinated with WalkNYC, the NYC DOT-led wayfinding initiative.

For all cities and metropolitan regions a common understanding, across stakeholder organisations, that the vast majority of journeys are combinations of walks, drives and rides is required, together with political will, in order to design and implement better coordinated transportation services, better streetscapes and useful multi-modal wayfinding systems similar to London and New York City.

Q: Who should pay for wayfinding? Is there more than one model of financing and can you think of examples?

A: Wayfinding projects have traditionally been funded through tourism and local interest advertising money.  In general these projects have had limited footprints, usually been limited in scope and ambition and therefore not served broad interests, often becoming unattractive street clutter over time.  Some small towns have had success, but big cities are different – the goal must be to make a system that’s highly useful and sustainable. In London, at the time Legible London was being developed, 32 wayfinding systems were identified, all of which were pulled out of the ground and replaced by Legible London when it rolled out.  The development of Legible London was funded by TfL but the rollout has been co-funded by TfL and the London Boroughs, primarily using public transport funding.

The most successful modern examples of pedestrian wayfinding are void of advertising interests.  Still, a wellconceived and designed wayfinding system benefits local business interests as it encourages pedestrians to explore and spend more time in an area.  Money for design, development and production/rollout should come from a combination of transit, public space, tourist and local business funding.  Large projects can appear costly as a new venture, but they add significantly to the experience of place and should be seen as part of required infrastructure even though the justification can take time and dedicated effort.

Wayfinding should be a critical part of a complete streets strategy (multi-modal design and designing for places instead of just cars) as well as part of any active or public transport plan.  Informing people about their local environment, improving their ability to make decisions about their onward journeys, is of enormous value.  For areas with commercial amenities, better knowledge of the local area encourages exploration, longer stays and ultimately better awareness of place. Further, public transit wayfinding provides better local awareness for onward journeys and quicker decisions at stations and transit hubs.

There is also growing evidence showing health and well-being benefits for people who do not drive cars for their journeys.  Seemingly intangible benefits (however backed by a growing body of evidence) are all linked to better awareness and understanding of place, which is at the heart of designing and developing effective wayfinding systems.

This means that a number of interests should be involved in funding wayfinding:

·         Public transit and urban improvement funds.  Transport money should be driven by complete-street mechanisms meaning that road projects should have to include planning and execution of bike and pedestrian elements including wayfinding.  Likewise, public transit projects should take a similar approach with similar requirements.

·         Health insurance and public health funds. The health benefits of biking and walking should mean that health insurance interests can fund wayfinding and active transit developments as these reduce health care costs.  Also, shifting more journeys to public or active transit should reduce overall transportation-related deaths as car journeys have a far higher rate compared with any other mode of transit.

·         Business and tourism organisations. Retail and local amenity interests in urban areas, such as Business Improvement Districts, should understand that clear and reliable information, helping pedestrians understand the local area, encourages more business.  We’ve noted that many wayfinding projects to date have profiled small areas and/or limited interests but it makes sense to support and promote information across larger areas and multiple interests in order to tie places together, encouraging more exploration and visits. If coordinated properly, production and maintenance costs for a single area or district should be less in a coordinated larger project compared with isolated smaller projects.

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