From Legible London to Cleveland, Ohio: how maps can make sense of strange cities

Legible London at work. Image take from the cover of Steer Davies Gleave's evaluation of the system.

London can be a confusing place to be a stranger. It has no unifying grid system; no Haussmann-era boulevards to offer sight lines. Streets run at all angles, turn back on themselves, change names or stop without warning. Those who don't know the city tend to fall back on the tube map for navigation; but that brings its own problems, making adjacent spots look far apart, and missing out entire districts. London's tourists spend a lot of time being lost.

A few will receive offers of help from someone like Tim Fendley. He tells one story of a party of South Americans, staring in bafflement at one of the hundreds of different spider-maps that portray part of the city's bus networks, trying to work out why it didn't match the tube map in their guide book. He tells another of a German family, on the verge of requiring counselling because of the father's refusal to accept that any city could be so ludicrous as to position a station called Bond Street on a street that wasn't called that. Fendley, he explains, “pretends to be a helpful Londoner as a form of research”.


Fendley, you see, has an ulterior motive. He’s the founder and creative partner of Applied, a mapping consultancy which promises to “push the boundaries of information design”. Its ambition, to make it possible to navigate any city, however unfamiliar, is written into the name of the system of maps and signs it designed for the British capital: Legible London.

“Cities are wonderfully complex, and wonderfully hard to pin down,” Fendley tells me in Applied's office in Clerkenwell. But “they are starting to wake up to the need to explain themselves. Fifteen years ago, councils wouldn't employ urban designers: they were seen as a bit odd. Now, nearly every council in the UK is going to have an urban design team.”

London is an extreme case, but it’s hardly unusual for a city to be hard to navigate. The new cities of the Gulf have grown up without comprehensive address systems, making life difficult for everyone from taxi drivers to basically anyone waiting for a parcel. In Seoul, Fendley points out, an American-style grid of six lane highways has been laid over an organically grown Asian city; and buildings in each neighbourhood were, until recently, numbered not by their location but by the order in which they were built.

But it's the inconsistencies of naming in Cleveland, Ohio, that have been occupying Applied recently. The city receives a fair number of tourists, most of whom come to watch sports; but relatively few of them stick around and explore. So it's turned to the firm’s recently established New York office to design a new set of maps of the downtown to encourage them to stick around.

Applied's vision of Downtown Cleveland.

The biggest barrier to doing so at the moment is the inconsistencies in naming, which can sometimes make it surprisingly difficult to work out where you are at all. While exploring the city himself, Fendley found himself unable to find a venue called the Rock Hall. He could find the famous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – that was easy – but not the other Rock Hall, that people kept telling him about. “People just laughed,” he says. The two were the same place.

Then there's the fact that so many of the city's neighbourhoods have had names imposed on them by developers; one area had ended up with five of them. Part of Applied's job in drawing up its new maps was simply to get agreement on what to call places. “Even if you don't like the new name you're all better off calling it the same thing,” Fendley says. “A lot of what we do is nomenclature.”

The same applies in London too, where the firm has come up with a three tier system. At the top of the hierarchy sit the “districts” such as the City or West End, names for large swathes of the city. Each of these is made up of “villages”: areas like Soho or Holborn, with which most Londoners will be familiar, and many of which were once literal villages.

Image: Applied/TfL.

And beneath that, you’ll find your “neighbourhood”. That’s your immediate surroundings, no more than a few streets – the area which you wouldn't consider it a chore to cross to buy a cup of coffee. These generally take their names from dominant streets or buildings.

Image: Applied/TfL.

So this point...

 

...is the Carnaby neighbourhood of Soho (a village), in the West End (a district).

That said, London is a mess, and there are places where this clean and logical system falls apart. “The structure breaks down around Trafalgar Square,” Fendley says, “because of the density of very high powered nodes”. Trafalgar Square isn't “in” Soho or St James or Westminster, it's just Trafalgar Square; the same applies to neighbouring points like Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.

London’s cycle hire docking stations are generally labelled with the name of their village, to tell you which bit of town you’re in; those around Trafalgar Square, though, refer simply to “West End”. That feels a bit of a cop out.

But, Fendley says, we navigate as much by landmarks ("nodes") as by districts; and the firm's chosen naming convention for the heart of London was the result of extensive research about what people called that area. 

“Legible London isn't about cleaning it up,” Fendley says. “We just reflect what's there.” This act of cataloguing, he argues, is an important business. “Councils can rename streets, but nobody is responsible for the names of areas. So we said, we're not going to play god, but we are going to look after this.”


All this is very exciting to map geeks like me. (Our discussion had a distinctly fractured quality, because I kept spotting interesting things on the maps adorning the meeting room's walls, and demanding he explained it to me as if I were a small child in the Natural History Museum.) But Fendley points to a number of ways better mapping can have a real tangible impact too. London's tube is crowded with people taking journeys that’d be much easier on foot if only people knew how. Maps can open up new areas of the city to visitors, too. Applied's research found the 86 per cent of visitors to Oxford Street never get off the main drag to explore the neighbouring districts, simply “because they're not aware of them. They can't see it, so it's not there.”

The biggest argument, though, is that better signage is relatively cheap. Fendley reckons that rolling out Legible London signage to the entire city would cost £50m; it can easily cost that much to refurbish one tube station. “Infrastructure is hardware. That's expensive. This is the software.”

The Legible London maps can be seen on free standing signs in some areas, and at public transport locations more widely. (Some of them, incidentally, flip their perspective from the normal north-is-up convention, so that "up" is whatever is in front of you.) But there are still huge swathes of outer London that they don't seem to cover. Nonetheless Applied has come up with names for everywhere: a list released after a freedom of information request last year showed that there were 767 villages and 3,345 neighbourhoods.

All these could soon be visible to the world. The firm is now working on a zoomable online version of the map, that'll cover the whole of London and include postcodes too.

“It's all about answering four questions,” he says. “Where am I? Where is it? How do I get here? And what else is here?” Once the app arrives, visitors to London may have answers at last.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.