Signs, Screens, and Swerving

Tourists examine a map of Manhattan. Image: Getty.

“Are better signs the secret to a successful city?” That’s the question Steven Poole poses in the Guardian’s Resilient Cities series. As he ambles toward an answer, Poole explores “Legible Cities”: the physical and digital wayfinding system first built for the city of Bristol, and then expanded and refined for Brighton and London over the last decade.

Poole calls Legible Cities a “movement” and, in fact, the system has made that rare leap from a successful project to the realm of best practice and buzzword. In 2010, I wrote about Legible City Brighton in an article for segdDESIGN under the headline “Wayfinding in Your Pocket”. I learnt that the creators of Legible Cities (City ID, Applied and others) had built the system on a pair of novel postulations that, today, we shrug off as unremarkable facts:

1. Wayfinding is not a forest of signs with arrows; it is a network of information

Nodes are places and routes are synapses. This network and its web of interrelationships can be rendered as physical signage, displayed on a screen in the palm of your hand, or whispered in your ear by Siri.

But first and foremost it is a network — structured data that convey meaning through connection. The deeper and more granular those connections are, the more helpful it becomes to the end-user – as in, “Show me all the cafés with cold-brewed coffee and WiFi within a 10-minute walk from here”.

2. By extension, the city itself is a platform: an organizing framework for the people who transverse it and the buildings and things that inhabit it.

We compose layers of information upon the city platform: transit schedules, restaurant reviews, our friends’ addresses, and secret shortcuts. The ideas behind Legible Cities underpin our evolving understanding of the city and our place in it.

In his article, Steven Poole taps into the legible city (lowercase, not Legible London’s branded system) to guide him to a new pub. In his earbud, Google interrupts his personal soundtrack to tell him to turn left or right. He successfully gets from point A to point Pub, but questions the instructive value of the experience:

“There’s no way I would find my way to that pub again without help. And I had taken no notice at all of my surroundings. It was as though I had passed frictionlessly through an opaque sonic tunnel.”

I would suggest that the “sonic tunnel” was a result of his soundtrack (self-professed: Queens of the Stone Age), not the interjected directions that guided him. Listening to step-by-step instruction is a much lighter cognitive load than squinting at maps. Aside from gentle taps on the shoulder (which may arrive soon with wearable technology), auditory cues are the most effective way to receive and respond to navigational information. Just last week, I learned a bit about the landscape and urbanscape of St. Louis by following the Google Maps voice from the art museum to an Italian deli in the Hill neighborhood.

Poole does raise provocative questions about authorship of the legible city: the power implicit in promoting neighbourhoods and points of interest in any given wayfinding system. But perhaps his most compelling passage is an ode to wandering, getting lost, and the romantic notion of the “flaneûr”.  It was surprising to learn from Poole that serendipitous city adventures were elevated to an art form by the French (mais bien sûr) as dérive (literally, “drifting”).

I call it “swerving and swooning”—navigating the city by surprising piques of interest, turning toward a faint drumbeat or a whiff of just baked bread. You never know what the city will reveal.

Leslie Wolke (@lawolke) is a wayfinding technology consultant and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog originally appeared at her website, lesliewolke.com.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.