Knowing the distance

Kind of how I feel every day

During one of the (many) talks I gave last week for the Los Angeles Design Festival, I was asked by the lovely architect Gwynne Pugh to define “the ‘hood.” At the Architecture of Transportation symposium that morning, several people had mentioned that they consciously moved to a more dense, transit-accessible neighborhood. But the bigger issue about using your neighborhood—without getting in a car, that is—is knowing what’s actually there and how far away you are from it. So I told a story about how I first gave up my car when I was living in Hollywood.

One of the first things I had to do before banishing my car was figure out how to fulfill my basic needs—groceries, drug store, gelato—within walking distance of my house. So I made a map with two circles around where I lived. One was a mile away and one was two miles away. (I just spent far too long digging through my desk, looking for the original map I made with a Thomas Guide, a piece of paper and a pen. But I just reproduced it here in about five minutes with Google Maps. You can do either at home.)

This map changed my life.

The Target I had driven to without pause was now inside the blue circle, meaning it was a mere 15 minute walk away. My favorite new restaurant Mozza was 1.5 miles away, meaning I had no excuse not to walk off the burrata pizza I ate there. It was only a 30 minute walk (give or take for hills and street navigation) to Universal City, for goodness sake. And that was in the Valley!

I made my “two-mile” map when Google Maps was young, of course. It was before it had walking and biking directions that told you exactly how long it would take you to get somewhere not in a car. Now, when you use something like Yelp to find a restaurant near you, it’s even easier. You can actually choose “walking” or “biking” to find places that are closest to you.

At this point when I was telling my story on stage, another woman on the panel chimed in, saying her husband made a similar map, swearing to walk everywhere within two miles, and bike everywhere within five. And he lost 20 pounds in a year. 20 pounds!

The point is that once we know exactly how far away things are, it changes our behavior. If you know something is two miles away, and you know that it will take only 30 minutes to walk there, you will probably (hopefully? maybe?) make the choice to walk.

That’s why the news that wayfinding signage will be placed throughout New York City showing distances and directions to major locations is big news. (Similarly big news: They’re looking for designers to propose design solutions for the signage). While this story in the New York Times focuses mostly on how the signs will help people who can get easily confused in the city’s un-numbered streets, it’s missing a crucial element. These can serve as the two-mile maps, helping people understand that something notable is indeed close enough to walk (or bike, or just not get on the subway).

Great for New York, of course. But there is no place that needs this kind of signage more than Los Angeles. LA has actually been tossing around a similar idea which was inspired by the Better Bikeways signage (below) by Joe Prichard that I wrote about a few years ago. An “Urban Trails” system would not only show distances to major landmarks, it would point pedestrians and bikers towards the best route for them (and—in my dream world—they could even add all the staircases!). While New York may want to install these as a helpful directional guide for its tourists or out-of-their-neighborhood residents, LA needs them for people who are so familiar with the streets they drive on that they never considered something was a mere 1.5 walkable miles away.

I haven’t yet seen a city do this kind of wayfinding signage exceptionally well. Please correct me if you know of a good example, but let’s face it, most of the directional signage that cities have placed throughout urban areas is largely worthless. Just listing a landmark with an arrow does absolutely nothing for me as a pedestrian or a driver. There are helpful biking signs in place in Chicago, which show bikers the distance between major squares and landmarks, but they’re not as detailed. One great opportunity for the proposed New York signage is that it can work with technology, as Architizer smartly adds: This could be one physical aspect of a larger program, which uses apps or augmented reality to direct walkers towards wi-fi hotspots or the best pizza.

It’s ironic, maybe, as we walk around cities with our smartphones all day, this kind of information in hand, that there’s still a need for physical signs. But there’s something about a well-designed wayfinding system that makes people pay attention. You don’t have to look for the information, you’re confronted with the information. The first response, of course, is almost always: “Whoa! That’s SO much closer than I thought it was!” But if you pass this kind of signage every day, you’ll start to knit together the different locations that make up the neighborhood where you live. It makes the city a smaller place, and not nearly as daunting to traverse on foot.

Update: Since I wrote this, I saw Legible London in person (amazing), New York installed a few of their signs as part of a pilot project, and the amazing Walk Your City created a toolkit that anyone can use to design and install a pedestrian wayfinding system in their community.

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  • Luke Keller

    Philadelphia is an absolutely fantastic example of pedestrian wayfinding signage. More info on Walk! Philadelphia (the name of the program) can be found here:

  • Theo Inglis

    Hey interesting stuff just came across it through twitter. London has something similar where there are new maps dotted around which have a 5 minute walk circle and a 15 minute walk circle marked around the you are here marker. Theres something about it here 

    I was in New York last march and it could do with a similar system! Walked around most of Manhattan but it wasn’t always easy to tell how long a journey would take, but the grid system makes it a much more navigable city than London.

     As for LA I’ve never been but I always assumed it would be the one city I couldnt just walk round to see everything I wanted to see! but maybe you have proved otherwise!

  • Alissa

    Awesome! Thanks for passing this along. My sister is moving to Philly in the fall and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

  • Alissa

    Thanks Theo! I’m definitely hoping to prove otherwise here in LA! That London signage is exactly what big cities need, and it’s nicely designed.

  • Outtacontext

    Walking in LA really requires a mindshift, just as you did. I grew up in LA and when I moved to Minneapolis my friends laughed at me when I would drive just a couple of blocks. Now I live in the burbs of Washington, DC. I walk to the subway back and forth to work downtown and my 10 year old car has only 27,000 miles on it (my LA friends can’t believe it). I rarely drive during the week and just here and there on the weekends when I shuttle my children around.

    BTW, when living in LA I was very interested in transportation issues. I did a documentary on the building of “the last freeway” to be built in LA, I-105, a project that was filled with social issues. You might enjoy seeing the photos:

    I also had a friend there who would take people on walking tours of the city. There are some amazing sites that are often only accessible via one’s feet. It was quite an eye opener to walk with her, slow down, and really see the city.

  • Erik Spiekermann

    The London project is called Legible London. More info here: 
    We started this kind of wayfinding in the late 90s with a project for Bristol under the title Legible City. Similar projects are happening all over the UK, and contact has been made with New York. I presume that their RFP is based on the work from London that Tim Fendley from AIG presented to them.

  • Alissa

    So fantastic, Erik, thanks for passing along this incredible information!

  • Alissa

    Thanks for the awesome comment and the interesting stories about the 105, I had no idea!

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