How many people can visualise a kilometre?

How many people can visualise a kilometre (or a mile for that matter)? asks Martin Vlietstra.

This is a short list of distances associated with well-known landmarks of approximately one kilometre. Where possible, the list is restricted to distances of between 950 m and 1050 m.

  • London – The Mall (It is 992 m from the centre of the Queen Victoria Memorial to the centre of the Admiralty Arch).
  • Forth Road Bridge – The main span and hence the distance between the two towers is 1006 m.
  • Severn Bridge – The main span and hence the distance between the two towers is 988 m.
  • Coventry – Diameter of the Ring Road.  See map below and compare with the kilometre grid squares.
  • Liverpool & Birkenhead – Width of the Mersey in the vicinity of The Liver Building is approximately 1 km.

It is easy for anybody to find @reference kilometres’ in the area where they live. In Britain the kilometre grid on the OS maps makes things a lot easier. It should be remembered that most county and city atlases (A-Z guides) also have kilometre or 500 m grids. If you really want super accuracy, then use Google Earth!

[Acknowledgements to the Ordnance Survey]

16 thoughts on “How many people can visualise a kilometre?”

  1. Milton Keynes is a very good example of where metric was clearly used by the designers. An Ordnance Survey map and a metric ruler will very quickly show some interesting statistics.

    Although the builders had to work with features such as hills, you can see very clearly that the areas directly north and south of Central Milton Keynes are built within a rough 1 sq km grid. Central Milton Keynes itself is made up of 2 of these grid squares with the original shopping building being contained within two rectangles of roughly 250 m x 500 m. The larger roundabouts on the main roads surrounding the shopping centre are rougly 1 km apart.

    Two of the earlier housing estates (Netherfield and Coffee Hall to those who live there) are built quite neatly within 500 m x 750 m squares. It’s a little more difficult to measure because it’s not straight, but the dual carriageway built to re-route the A5 is 13.5 km in length from the centre of the roundabouts at either end.

    I no longer live in Milton Keynes, but I have no problem visualising the areas I’ve described above.


  2. The metric system must never reach Britain’s roads. Only wierd people, like the members of UKMA, try to enforce it. Everyone that I have met and asked agrees with me, still thinking in miles.
    So say no to kilometres! Let the wierdos have their metric system but keep the tried and tester imperial system on our roads!


  3. I am slightly amused by the suggestion that imperial is tried and tested on British roads. I venture to suggest that metric is also tried and tested on roads thoughout the rest of the world.

    People naturally think in miles in the UK. Why should that surprise anyone given they have no choice but to do so?

    On the point about enforcement, only the Government of the day can do that just as they enforce imperial. Everyone has a democratic right to argue for change. Name calling does opponents of change no good at all!


  4. Of course it’s not surprising that we (have to) think in miles, when that is all that is shown on the road signs. But look at our maps, they are often marked with 1 km grid squares, very handy for roughly working out distances for a planned hike or cycle ride. And again, walking around town, it’s easy to get a feel for close-by places as being so-many hundred metres away. But a mile, that’s sort of “out there” in its own separate world. If somebody tells me somewhere is “half a mile away” I’m not really sure just how far that is. The only way I can know if I can walk there in reasonable time is to have to laboriously convert that back to metres (1 mile = 1600 m, roughly).

    Another useful side-effect of signs in kilometres, as anybody who has driven (or cycled) abroad will know, is that they certainly “count off” at a much faster rate! You get the feeling that you’re making definite progress towards your destination, and once you start to get close, the measurements switch from whole kilometres to kilometres and tenths of kilometres (eg, 3.2 km), making it easier to pinpoint your destination and much harder to miss a turning.


  5. This adjective weird seems to be used a bit above. Or the noun weirdo, assuming that refers to me. Try telling that to anyone else in the world apart from the US (who aren’t exactly Imperial anyway, certainly not their armed forces or scientists) and you’ll be surprised how they manage to get around using kilometres. Even the Aussies and the Irish- now there’s a conversion for you! What’s so weird about a logical international system- And no, nothing to do with the EU- the metric system is older even than sliced bread. In good old Queen Victoria’s reign it was proposed by a (British) government Select Committee, and eventually timidly started by our own govt in 1965, but some backward-looking misguided folk made such a din (supported by the right wing press who saw in it a mythical EU ‘plot’) that they didn’t have the guts to go ahead and join us to the rest of the world. Of course if you ask your like-minded friends you’ll get like-minded opinions. I may have been brough up using Imperial, being 76, but I don’t blindly support it when there’s something better used by everyone else!


  6. I think if Tabitha is going to talk about “weirdos� it has to be the British and the Americans who are weird when it comes to metrication. 94% of the world’s population measure their road distances using km, and road speed using km/h. They must find it extremely weird when they visit either of these 2 countries who insist on using their own parochial measures on the roads.

    This point was brought home to me when I hosted a colleague from Singapore some years ago. He was well travelled, but had not visited the UK before. In conversation I mentioned that I live about 30 miles north of London. I got a blank look – he didn’t know what how big a mile was. I actually live about 50 km north of London, which my colleague understood immediately.


  7. Late last year I treated myself to Satnav which I switched to metric the moment it came out of the box… as a concequence if I’m travelling somewhere “new” I tend to ignore distances on road signs. One thing that becomes blatantly clear though is that there is more metric on our roads than meets the eye. We all know about the “yards” signs which are really “metres” in disguise, but I’ve noticed quite often that signs for 1/3 mile and 2/3 mile are often placed at 500 m and 1000 m intervals.

    I’ve also spotted one road where somebody clearly made a mistake and put distance signs in miles at the corresponding km distances – this was a while back and it might have been fixed since then, but it would be interesting to go back and see if anybody has actually noticed!


  8. Tabitha, I have news for you:

    1) Road are designed using metric units. If there are road-works in your street, have a look for numbers painted on the kerb-stones by the road engineers. They are probably the distance in metres from the start of the road. That is why I know that my house is 1065m from the start of the road.

    2) Next time that you drive along a motorway (or better still if you are the passenger in a car that is being driven along a motorway) keep a lookout for the little numbers on the white marker posts. They represent the distance from the “conceptual� start of the motorway in units of 100m. If you need to call the emergency services, you will be asked to quote the number. That will help them get to you quicker. The equivalent signs in Italy are much more prominent and are used by businesses to publicise their premises – such as the restaurant at km19.7 on the Via Salaria.

    3) Tachometers are calibrated in metric units. Next time that you go into a bus, look at the speedometer if you can. You will notice that km/h graduations are much more prominent than the mph graduations.

    4) Government statistics are quoted in metric units – amount of motorway, trunk roads etc, and traffic density and so on.

    In short, everybody who has anything to do with roads, other than the drivers, work in metric units. Unfortunately the UK Government thinks that the British public are too stupid too adapt to the conversion. The Irish Government however took an opposite view and they have now converted their road system to one that uses metric units.


  9. I think that kilometres and metres and km/h on our roads would be great. Metric is not just for weird people, but the majority of people in the world use metric, and in every country I have visited outside the UK (except USA), I have seen only metric used on road signs (about 16 countries). Although the USA does have metric road signs in some parts as well. Only the UK does not have metric road signs. Seems to me that the UK is the odd one out, which is rather weird, don’t you think?


  10. # Tabitha Jones Says:
    April 16th, 2007 at 19:26
    “… but keep the tried and tester imperial system on our roads!”

    If the imperial system is just a tester, then what is the real system that should be used?
    SI units (the International System, developed mostly by UK and USA scientists) are the only units that can be used universally. The old miles were different in each country, each location, each century. The mile we have today is one of many that were previously used in the British Isles, the rest died out apart from the nautical mile.
    The Romans gave us the mile (1000 paces of a Roman legion) but they left nearly 2000 years ago, so we should move on and use a sytem which was in part developed by British people rather than a foreign empire.


  11. If/when roads are metricated, can the 1-mile and half-mile exit approach signs be kept in their old locations, relabelled “1600 m” and “800 m”. I think that 1000 and 500m are too close together unless the junctions are close together anyway…


  12. i can’t wait for kilometres to be used on our roads and our speeds in km/h. but i guess im just weird me & 6 billion other people ? sorry tabitha your the minority in the world now


  13. While the OS maps might have been to metric scales for a long time, most cheap plastic compasses currently on sale in the UK purporting to have scale rules for 1:25000 and 1:50000 maps seem to under-read by a factor of 100, i.e. labelled as metres but with the numbers actually corresponding to hectometres. Some even have a third scale for antique 1:63360 maps, still labelled as metres but actually reading in hectometres (or perhaps imperial kilohands) and include imperial inch rules! One model gets the 1:50000 scale correct (labelled and reading in kilometres) but includes a mish-mash of upper-case `M’ and numbered hectometres in the 1:25000 scale (on the short edge). Another gets both readings correct but obliges you to read the 1:25000 scale (along one long edge) from right-to-left or with upside-down numbers.

    This seems to be a modern `innovation’ as my own plastic compass, made (allegedly in Sweden) before 1992, includes only 5 cm and 8 cm rules—naughtily without stating the unit but otherwise ergonomically perfect—and leaves the user to calculate the horizontal ground distance by guile and cunning alone. I do not know whether the new ones are a clever ploy intended to undermine the metric measurements or just a case of being designed by dim USAians who have built themselves something of a reputation for getting metric measurements wrong by a factor of 100—although that in itself might be just another clever ploy. Nor whether the `scouts, army cadets and professionals’ at whom these compasses are marketed are helped or hindered by any of this…

    It appears that only the Suunto brand, as sold by the OS shop, gets this consistently right—at a price which is reassuringly expensive!


  14. A kilometre will soon be easy for our politicians to visualise. It is the length of the queue formed by MPs when they vote in our parliament’s latest innovation in democracy:

    Coronavirus: Kilometre long queues to vote will make us ‘look like the stupidest parliament in the world’

    (500 MPs social distancing at 2 metres = 1000 metres).


  15. Unfortunately down a bit in the article there is a quote that is another reason the UK parliament will look like the stupidest parliament in the world:

    Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg has said ……

    “Politics is better done face-to-face, even if the whites of the ministerial eyes are six feet away”, he wrote in the political magazine The House, yesterday.

    When the “Leader of the House” can’t bring himself to say “two metres”, the words all the other people of intelligence are saying, it makes him and the whole country look like a nation of fools.


  16. @m and Daniel and the government

    Two very interesting posts. Yes, maybe ‘The Government’ and MP’s will see a bit more metric, apart from the likes of Leadsom, Rees-Mogg, Bone and a few others. Now, factually 500 MP’s at 2 m distance = 1000 m omits the thickness of each MP which will add a fair bit to that distance.
    The other interesting bit is that this queue it seems, mainly exists because the leader of the house, the Rt. Hon member for the 18th century, strongly objects to electronic voting, a bit of shooting oneself in the foot I think!
    If any ‘good’ in coming out of all this it is a wider exposure to metric units by the media, an exposure of those that still refuse to accept its existence, and hopefully a much better world wide usage of video conferencing, which by the looks of it ‘needs a bit more work’ in some cases.


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