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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.