All distances on London pedestrian signs to be shown in “minutes”

According to Legible London, an initiative led by Transport for London, all existing pedestrian direction signs in London will be replaced by 2015 with new wayfinding signs. The enamelled monolith-style signs will have maps as well as directions and distances in “minutes”.

In their 2006 wayfinding study, Legible London described the situation of pedestrian signage as, “Distance Information. Minutes, miles, metres or yards? Across the systems there are inconsistencies which can be confusing for a pedestrian”. For their new wayfinding system distances are shown only in “minutes”.

Prototype signs have been installed in the West End. The maps on the signs have no scale, but do have a circle labelled in “minutes walk”. The implication is that all places within the circle can be walked to within the time shown. This is quite misleading as roads mostly do not lead in straight lines from the centre of the circle to its circumference.

The distances to various points of interest are also listed on the signs in “minutes”. Hopefully these walking times have not been calculated “as the crow flies” too.

No indication is given of the walking speed used to calculate walking times. Walking speeds vary widely between individuals, and are dependent on prevailing conditions such as weather and how crowded the streets are. Anyone who walks particularly slowly, is disabled, has children with them, or is walking in wintry conditions will have to guess how to adjust the times shown accordingly. Consequently, the figures shown can really only be used in comparison with each other, and not as an absolute guide. Surely it would be more useful to show distances using standard units of distance rather than improvised units based on time.

Metres are widely understood by both visitors and Londoners alike; whereas feet, yards and fractions of miles are unfamiliar to the majority of overseas visitors. With OS maps using a metric grid system since the 1940s, and other London travel maps using metric scales, one has to wonder at the continued reluctance of authorities to use the metre as a unit of distance on signage in the 21st century. Transport for London are missing a golden opportunity here to standardise on metres for all pedestrian signage.

Feedback on the new signs is being invited at the following link.

10 thoughts on “All distances on London pedestrian signs to be shown in “minutes””

  1. I universally support the metric system over the imperial system, but I think you are living in an ivory tower on this one. Yes, in a theoretically ideal world where everyone is great at mental arithmetic and familiar with units of distance at a wide variety of scales, marking the signs with units of distance would probably make sense. But as the report describes, people care about how long a journey will take, not how far it is, and they are very poor judges of “how far is far”. This scheme seeks to educate people that walking is a viable choice where they would not otherwise have realised it. It’s not just about providing information, but about changing behaviour. “5 minutes walk” may not give an accurate time for how long it will take a given person to walk, but it gives a good rough idea. For many people, “350metres” (or “1000ft”, etc.) may not give them any idea at all how long it would take to walk.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that it doesn’t take the same amount of time to walk 100m on the flat as it does 100m up a hill. If they have actually calculated the times by measurement of average time for a number of people actually walking the distances, they may be more indicative than a distance alone. Of course, I have no idea if they actually did this.


  2. “Distance Information. Minutes, miles, metres or yards? Across the systems there are inconsistencies which can be confusing for a pedestrian”?
    Yes it’s confusing for everyone, not just pedestrians. That’s why we started the metrication programme back in the 1960s. If the government actually got on and completed that programme then the confusion would be sorted out overnight.

    It’s rather ironic that this campaign is called “legible London”. Using time units to measure distance has made their maps totally illegible.


  3. I have considered the matter before and have concluded that pedestrians and cyclists should be given distances in metres or kilometres, not time. The problem is pedestrians and cyclists just move at such different speeds that five minutes for one person is two for another and ten for a third. Additionally by using time it completely separates pedestrians and cyclists who, while they should not use the same parts of the road way, still have many of the same needs. Metres and kilometres are used the whole world around and most people will have some idea of how long it’ll take to walk five hundred metres — or they would, if signage was consistently provided in metres and kilometres.


  4. In answer to Weeble’s point about educating and changing behaviour. Providing inaccurate and misleading information is an odd way to educate people.
    It would be much easier to associate distance with walking times if we adopted a single system of measurement that everyone can understand and use. The campaign to complete metrication would ultimately address this business of walking times and many other issues related to measurement.
    Also the written word “minute” is language dependant wheras the metre or kilometre are not when the ‘m’ and ‘km’ symbols are used.


  5. I have got some old Dutch maps of The Netherlands from about 1870. Distances are given in “uuren gaans” which translates more or less to “hours to travel”. One uuren gaans corresponded to about 5 kilometres. It seems that the uuren gaans was more common than the mile.

    So in that respect London follows an old tradition.


  6. It appears that they are working on the principal that 67 m (as the crow flies) can be covered in one minute.


  7. It occurs to me that minutes at a given speed is not a very helpful way to measure a distance. It makes is difficult to work out the actual distance in distance units, should you wish to do so. Whatever system you use, metric or imperial, speed is always quoted per hour or per second. So to work out distance travelled in 1 minute will require either multiplication or division by 60.


  8. I am not going to suggest that either distance or time is better (and why not give both?). But I do notice that in major airports (Heathrow, Schipol, Toronto Pearson, etc), walking distances to gates are shown primarily as time (e.g. gates E20-E32, 10 min), which of course does take into account the fact that the route is invariably not a straight line (but must also ignore moving walkways?!). (Pearson in some places also gives the distance in meters.)


  9. I saw a map today erected by the London Borough of Islington. It showed a five-minute circle centred on “You are here”, but has a scale showing metres, feet and a “five minute walk”. They appear to work on a distance of about 375 m in five minutes


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