Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I think I may be a secret geography geek

I think maybe I should chuck literature and the Middle Ages and get a degree in geography and planning and learn GIS. Oh, you think I'm kidding do you? I swear, I'm not.

Why? Because today I blew off half a day's work on things medieval because I got *obsessed* -- OBSESSED, I tell ya! -- with "Legible London," the new(ish) "pedestrian wayfinding" project by Transport for London in partnership with Applied Information Group (AIG, but not that other AIG) and Central London Partnership. (I think I'm getting the credits right -- or maybe CLP was the real impetus behind it. Or AIG.) I think a couple of hours went by as I read the research behind the project, browsed around on the project websites, and played around with Google street view maps.

(This all began as I was looking deeper into the neighborhood I might be renting in for my 6-week trip in May and June and ended up playing around on the Transport for London site, so I guess the spur to this geographic obsession was the fact that I'm going to London again for research in things medieval. So I'm not really giving up my day job. Yet. Btw, the neighborhood I might be staying in is Belsize Park. Well now, aren't I posh?)

Back to the subject of the post. If you've been to London since 2009 and have walked around the Bond Street, Southbank/Bankside or Bloomsbury/Covent Garden areas in central London (or Richmond and Twickenham areas in the outskirts), you've seen the pilot program of this project. Here's a gallery of what the maps look like -- it might ring some bells for those of you who've seen and used them.

What got me so jazzed and took up so much of my time today was reading the "Legible London wayfinding study report," done by AIG and CLP, which you can download in PDF from this page, where it is also summarized. The report is worth reading if you're interested in maps -- the visual, material objects and their design, as well as their abstractions as data, or the psychological processes of "mental mapping" -- because I swear you'll have a fun time reading it, too. You'll also be interested if you're interested in design, information technology, urban planning, initiatives to encourage walking (for health of the individual or the planet), or humans' relations to and cognitive negotiations of space. For starters, it's a beautifully presented piece of public communication. And hey, I'm not the only one who thought so -- AIG won the 2009 Design Week Award for Best Promotional Brochure for a version of it. And it's *fascinating,* especially if you've ever tried to find your own way on foot around London.

One of the recurring themes of the report is that London has no consistent wayfinding system of signage and maps for pedestrians, in contrast to the systems for drivers (not just in London, but across the UK) and public transport users. Instead, an eclectic, sometimes even contradictory, collection of different systems in different neighborhoods has built up over time, and many of them actually aren't helpful for the way most people navigate on foot. In other words, they don't give pedestrians confidence (a key term in the report), and so people give up and rely on public transport, even when it would be quicker to walk. And it's not just the tourists, but the locals, too. So, for example, someone needing to get from Charing Cross tube stop to Covent Garden might go to all the trouble of going down into the tube, taking the Northern Line one stop to Leceister Square, transferring to the Picadilly Line, and taking it one stop to Covent Garden (traveling time 8 minutes, not counting getting in and out, transferring, and waiting for the trains), when instead, they could take an 8 minute walk for free.

But the obstacles to making that walk are many, according to the report. For one thing, the destination isn't visible in real space, where it is on the iconic tube map (more on that in a minute). In fact, London has few vistas, and with the exception of a handful of tall, iconic buildings and structures, not a lot of landmarks visible from a long distance. It also doesn't have a lot of long-running avenues, but instead, a warren of streets whose names change seemingly every block, and whose street signs are often blocked, hard to find (especially for pedestrians, as they are often oriented for traffic), or missing. And so even the native Londoner might not feel confident taking the Strand northwest to a left on Bedford to Garrick to Rose to Long Acre to get there. Even if there are signs pointing toward Covent Garden, they're likely pointing to the market and you need to get near the tube stop. Or if they do point to the tube, there's only one on Bedford and you won't see it unless you're already there. Or it's one of those little narrow signs ("finger" posts) and you miss it. Or someone has intentionally or unintentionally turned it and you get turned around. Or it says "o.5 km" and you think that sounds like a long way (more on that in a minute, too). Charing Cross to Leceister Square to Covent Garden is easier and the trains do the work for you.

I can understand this lack of confidence even though I'm generally over-confident at pedestrian navigation. At the risk of sounding obnoxious here, I'm actually a pretty good navigator and reader of maps (though add mountains and up and down and I get a little thrown), and I have a pretty complex "mental mapping" system in which I try to combine information from large scale system maps with my experiential mapping of traveling in smaller segments of that space. (For example, I'm the kind of person who knows which direction a subway is going, which direction(s) the exit ramps and stairways go, and therefore, which way I'm facing when I exit a subway or tube stop.) I'm not always right, but I'm rarely "lost." If I get off track I get back on it pretty quickly and I usually know what I've done wrong.

But *man*, I once got pretty darn lost in the Covent Garden area and I blame those damn skinny little "finger" posts that the Legible London report picks on frequently. I stupidly relied on those instead of getting myself a good map and I ended up not only going in the wrong direction entirely, but also disorienting myself because of it. This must have been on my trip in 2007 before the pilot "Legible London" maps were put up! I ended up finally righting myself, but came thisclose to hopping on the tube, even though where I was going was only a 15 minute walk away (the maximum time length that the Legible London study says people consider "walking distance" and that is often faster than the tube). In other words, that incident would've made a great data point for the Legible London folks: I lacked confidence as a pedestrian and almost fell back on the tube because of pedestrian-unfriendly signage up top and the ease of use of the tube and its well-designed map.

But the tube and its iconic map are also really misleading. This I already knew, but I didn't quite realize the extent of its effect. The tube map is a fantastic work of classic design -- which the report acknowledges -- both in its aesthetic value and its use value, at least in so far as it's used to navigate the tube. But did you know vast quantities of Londoners use it as a map for above ground, too?! That's madness! In case you've forgotten what it looks like, go take a look (opens PDF). It's a gorgeous piece of mid-century modernism, isn't it? Makes you want to sit in an egg chair under an arc floor lamp, doesn't it? But it's an abstraction that's not made to scale -- there's no way of knowing how far one stop is from another and often places are suggestively represented as being closer or farther apart than they are, or in different cardinal directions from each other than they are in real space. And it does funky things to the Thames to fit the design. So, for example, it shows the Thames seemingly going East-West (as a border, not the flow of the water) from Temple to Westminster, and makes Victoria seem like it's pretty near the bank; thus, on this map, Waterloo is South of Westminster, and the Westminster Bridge thus seemingly runs North-South. Except that none of that is right. In reality, the Thames runs North-South in that stretch; Victoria is to the South-West of Westminster and not near the bank; Waterloo is to the North-East of Westminster; and the Westminster Bridge runs East-West across the Thames. So when people use this map to navigate anywhere but the tube system itself, they're going to get hopelessly confused -- as the report in fact shows. And yet, people rely on it because it's a really cool, well-designed, easy to use map -- it's just not meant for pedestrians. (And meanwhile, the A-Z guide is made with cars in mind. And it's complicated and busy and nothing like the simplicity of the tube map.) So what the Legible London project is trying to do is, they hope, create a way-finding system for pedestrians that's as intuitive and easy as the tube map.

But people have funny intuitions about things. It's not just the tube map's fault that people think the Thames runs East-West. The report points out that that's a common misconception. It doesn't say this (maybe because they didn't get language and literature people involved) but I bet it's partly because there's a neighborhood called "Southbank" and borough called "Southwark," and they are, indeed, South of the oldest parts of London, where the Thames does run roughly East-West. Language shapes us as much as iconic imagery does. And history has something to do with this, too, as "the" Southbank was once directly south of what was then the limit of the city. I've seen this effect of language, culture and history on oreintation elsewhere, too. When I lived in LaLa Land, a couple of friends wouldn't believe when I said Malibu was West of Westwood, not North of it. In their minds, they drove "up" the coast to Malibu, and "up" is north, right? And they lived on the "West Coast," so it must run north and south, right? Well, abstractly and and in big-picture sense, sort of, but really only if you're looking at it from outside of California. But actually, no, because at Pacific Palisades, it turns West and runs that way until about Point Mugu, and then it goes northwesterly until about Santa Barbara, when it starts going west again, and it pretty much alternates between northwest and west until you get to Humboldt County way up north, where it ironically straightens out. (Duuuude.)

But I digress. The point is, it's not the Tube's fault if bright people in car-dependent LA also don't know their West from their North. Let's get back to London, where people have just as many cockamamie ideas about where things are and how to get to them as SoCal people do. Lots of Londoners walk, but more would walk if way-finding signage were designed with their needs in mind. And the more people walk, according to the report, the fewer cockamamie ideas they have about where things are in relation to one another -- the better their mental map is. (OK, so that *does* explain SoCal, because as the song goes, "Nobody walks in L.A.") According the Legible London folks, one of things pedestrians need to be more confident and therefore to walk more and further is to have maps oriented "heads up" -- that is, in the same direction they are facing when they read it. Funny thing is, this actually once nearly threw me off when reading one of their signs in Southbank as I was making my way to Waterloo station. It was oriented to the South because it was facing that way, which was also the way I needed to go, but I very nearly went in the opposite direction until I noticed. But I'm used to the "north is up" convention and how to compensate for that, and most people are not, apparently. I can give that up, since there's nothing inherently right about "north is up" -- as we medievalist know, many medieval maps were oriented to the East -- and the most sensible orientation is the one most useful in context (and so north-pointing maps are useful when you're orienting by the North Star -- not so much on the street in London!).

To give you another cool example of how the new maps are designed around the needs of pedestrians: if you go back up to that "gallery" link and look at the first three pictures in it, you'll see some of those pedestrian-friendly elements. Though the maps are largely aerial, they give at least the outlines of all buildings and then 3D images of landmark buildings and popular destinations. They're also generally more detailed, because of course a walker can take in more detail than a driver. And, perhaps most important, they give distance in time measurement instead of space measurement and show maps with a 15-minute walk radius (and also a 5-minute radius) because people are more likely to walk 15 minutes away than 1.3 km (.8 miles). As their pilot programs and surveys have shown, it also makes people realize that a lot of things are closer together than they think. London is a very dense city, with a lot of sensory stimuli in a 15-minute walk, which can make it seem much bigger geographically than it is. I'm a runner (or well, I was), so I'm used to thinking in both time and distance, and I can read "1.3 miles" and know how long it will take me to get there and that that isn't a long distance. But to most people it sounds daunting, even to native Londoners. Creating a system of maps that helps people digest their city in manageable chunks--bringing it down to human scale--actually does important social and cultural service, connecting people and neighborhoods, and in a huge megalopolis like London, that's no small feat.

As new and forward-thinking and digital and innovative that AIG and this project are on many levels, I think one of the reasons I love it -- and one of the reasons I love maps of all kinds -- is that it melds the old and the new. It takes old forms of travel, forms that Chaucer's pilgrims would have known in their London and Southwark -- traveling by time (one day's ride to X town) and by itinerary (pass the old church and turn right at the next crossroads) -- and melds them with satellite images and GIS and the latest research on cognition and "mental mapping," along with forms of cartography somewhere in between (the map of a whole area, for example, instead of just the turn-by-turn itinerary that a GPS [or "SatNav" in the UK] system would give), and brings London's distant past, the near past, the present, and the future (a more walkable, 21st century London) together, much the way that the city itself is a palimpsest of time and history. I really hope this project successfully expands to the entire city and its outskirts.


Anonymous said...

great post--I love maps of London, and love figuring out how to get around! I'll check this out!

tempestsarekind said...

I thought that was just me! I mean, I have a *wretched* sense of direction anyway, but I can never figure out where I'm going in London except by Tube and then hoping that the walk from the Tube station to the destination won't be too complicated.

The first time I was ever in London, a friend in my study abroad program and I were trying to get to the Houses of Parliament, and we just could. not. do it. We wandered around for ages, and finally gave up and took the Tube. Since we had to buy tickets then, the workers in the station laughed at us--albeit kindly--because we were only one or two stops away, but we could not figure out any other way to get there. It was ridiculous.

But I feel a little less dumb knowing that actual Londoners have that problem sometimes, too. :)

Dr. Virago said...

Nope, it's not just you!

I felt the same way when I got on the wrong branch of the Northern Line and my Londoner friends told me ever Londoners do that! :) Nice to know it's not because we're tourists, eh?

Dr. Virago said...

Er, *even.

tenthmedieval said...

The Northern Line through Euston is especially bad because it runs 'north' opposite Victoria Line trains running 'south' which go in the same physical direction (roughly west...). The only way to cope with that is just to follow signs blindly or to learn it. But the Tube, at least, has a coherent system of signage.

There was a particular point where I got all this, during my London-based Ph. D. to which I commuted from Cambridge. Shortly after Heathrow Terminal 4 station opened the powers-that-were put adverts in the Piccadilly Line trains that serve it showing all the London attractions reachable by the line, using an aerial perspective from roughly west-south-west. Basically everything in the West End is next door to its neighbour in that perspective and that was when I suddenly realised that I could likely walk from King's Cross to the river in half an hour or so and that I was a fool to keep getting the Tube to Russell Square. That said, whereas to go that one stop on the Tube and walk to Senate House from there took me fifteen minutes, walking it direct usually took me twenty-five, so I only did the latter when I wasn't running late. I think the real time gains from walking only accrue in the very centre, and then only if you can somehow dodge the crowds. But it's better for you and cheaper!

Dr. Virago said...

Also the fact that the Northern line has two branches that cross over each other is a little confusing, too, especially since the map isn't clear on that point. I know where I'll be staying this summer is on the "Edgeware Line," but that only tells me what line to get from Euston going north. I had to look up which line becomes which (Bank or Charing Cross) below Euston so I'd know whether coming from Belsize Park would get me to King's Cross or if I'd have to change at Euston. So confusing!

As for King's Cross to Russell Square, I would've never taken the tube for that. But then I was going the opposite direction -- Russell Square to the BL, which is just this side of King's Cross, and I *hate* overshooting things. It's an OCD-like obsession of mine. Plus King's Cross's interminable crowds and endless ways out (which I still haven't quite figured out) freak me out. Much more pleasant to walk from my Malet street dorm to the BL (that's only a 15 minute walk). Add to that fact that I would have had to walk to Russell Square anyway, and I might as well walk the whole way. But you're right that it can be a 20-25 minute walk once the crowds at Euston and getting out of King's Cross are figured in, and for many people that's the threshhold

Dr. Virago said...

*crowds at Euston Road, that is.