In London, a new approach to wayfindingBy
New York City has, for obvious reasons, a close tie with the now-completed 2012 Olympics. Our Mayor wanted it for the city while many New Yorkers fought against it, worrying about costs, security and added mayhem that hosting the global competition for two weeks would bring to the city. Ultimately, the Mayor still managed to secure his 7 line extension, and the city received two new baseball stadiums, a basketball arena and potentially a new soccer stadium as well. What we missed besides the Games themselves is hard to see.
Meanwhile, London just wrapped up a compelling spectacle of competition but managed to scare away many residents and tourists. The economic bump expected from the Summer Games may not materialize, but the presence of tens of thousands of foreigners making use of London’s transportation infrastructure may help Transport for London readjust the way it presents itself.
As we know, London has entirely eschewed a subway map that nods to geography. The famous Harry Beck map presents a schematic of the system with notoriously famous results. Riders unfamiliar with the complex geography of London streets often find themselves wasting time on the Tubes when walking a few blocks would be more efficient. The Olympics apparently laid this to bare, and Joe Peach at This Big City penned an amusing and insightful column on it:
With millions of visitors in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the city’s transport network is under more pressure than ever before. If you want to head to the Olympics, chances are you’ll get the next tube to Stratford, even though there are countless other stations that link to Olympic sites. Aware of the challenges of dealing with millions of extra riders, most of whom won’t be local and will be relying on geographically flawed signage for directions, TfL have made some temporary updates…
Route maps on underground carriages are now littered with pink boxes pointing out which stations can be used to access Olympic events. This photo shows what you’ll find if you take the Jubilee Line, and London’s 12 other lines are all looking pretty similar. Though relatively minor additions, they represent a pretty radical development for a map that has barely changed its visual approach in eight decades…
London’s underground network is the oldest in the world, and as a result many stations are named after once-significant local features (in fact, much of London is named after once-significant local features). The effect of this is the present-day destinations they largely exist to serve rarely get prominent placement on signage, with obvious potential for confusion among travellers. Though investment in technology and improved infrastructure is critical for the London Underground to remain efficient (and TfL is doing both of these things), improving the design of the network’s wayfinding tools also plays a key role. A functional city needs citizens and visitors that are well-informed, and with TfL rethinking its underground map and signage, London has become that little bit easier to get around, for locals and visitors alike.
Peach’s last paragraph above is key, and it’s something map designers often lose sight of. As I discussed last week, Massimo Vignelli’s controversial New York City subway map was to be used in conjunction with two other maps, but the MTA never embraced the Verbal Map. Thus, Vignelli’s diagrammatic map never caught on and annoyed many who tried to use it. In London, Beck’s diagram has ruled for decades, but the city seems willing to embrace some added information.
I’ve written a lot over the years about the search for the right map, but it seems more and more likely that the one right map doesn’t exist. The proper approach to directional wayfinding involves making sure riders have the right information in the right format at the right point. London is working its way toward a better solution. I wonder if New York needs to do the same.