Minutes, TfL and ‘Legible London’

Visitors to the capital may have been surprised by the use of “minutes” to measure distance on many pedestrian signs. Metric Views has now come across correspondence between Ronnie Cohen and Transport for London (TfL) that provides the explanation.

On 12 July 2016, Ronnie Cohen wrote to the Transport Commissioner, Mike Brown, about signs provided to help us get around in London and enclosed a copy of a Metric Views article entitled, “Inconsistent and confusing distances on public signs“. Here is Ronnie’s letter:

“Dear Mr Brown

I would like to raise the issue of muddled public signage for pedestrians and transport users in London. I wrote about this issue in June 2012 on the Metric Views website and enclose a copy of my article for you. Millions of tourists visit London every year from all parts of the world and we surely cannot expect them to be familiar with Britain’s archaic, medieval measurements.

Please replace all public transport and pedestrian TfL signs showing yards and miles with signs showing metres and kilometres for the benefit of tourists.

Everyone will benefit from the use of consistent information about distances to places in London. The metric system is used all over the world and has language-neutral symbols for metric units (e.g. “m” for metres, “km” for kilometres, etc.), which do not require translation. As the metric system is now used in all countries in the world, all tourists are bound to be familiar with metres and kilometres.

The modern metric system is now universally used in all countries. It would improve London’s image and show that this city is not living in the imperial past. It would bring London into line with the rest of Europe and the British Commonwealth. All Londoners and visitors will benefit from consistent, universally understood signage in modern metric units.

Yours faithfully

Ronnie Cohen”

The views expressed by Ronnie are, of course, his own.

Here is TfL’s reply, dated 18 March 2016:

“Dear Mr Cohen

Signage on our network

Thank you for your letter of 8 February to Mike Brown MVO about signage on our network. Mike has asked me to reply and I am sorry for the delay in doing so.

We are committed to providing Londoners with useful, consistent and accurate information. In 2009, we introduced Legible London to help people navigate at street level.

We work with a range of organisations to ensure Legible London designs are as inclusive as possible. For example, the Legible London maps show steps, pavement widths and pedestrian crossings. Further information on Legible London can be found here:


Research by the London School of Economics on our behalf highlighted that 90 per cent of people were keen to see more Legible London signs introduced. The evidence also suggests people value distances shown on a minute basis. The minutes on our signs are based on an average walking speed and these are tested to make sure they are realistic.

Our design standards used by our staff, suppliers and design agencies are available on our website. These ensure that our information and communication is consistent. You can find our standards here:


The cost to update all the signs at the same time would be prohibitive. However, we are listening to our customers and we will continue to ensure that new signs, including those that are updated as part of our improvement programmes, will be consistent and use the minutes-based format.

Yours sincerely

Managing Director, Customers, Communication and Technology”

So there you have it. Pedestrian signage does not have to use a particular system of measurement. So long as the signs have planning permission or are authorised under other legislation, any units may be used.

UKMA’s view on the legal position regarding the measurement units used on signs appears here: http://www.ukma.org.uk/road-signage/are-metric-signs-legal 

7 thoughts on “Minutes, TfL and ‘Legible London’”

  1. As it happens the views expressed by Ronnie are also my own. TfL’s response is typical of the wishy-washy civil-servant’s approach to anything that might appear controversial and therefore make their job a little harder: Bland Compromise. I would like to see the evidence from the LSE that people value distances shown on a minute basis. I would also like to point out that there is a difference between ‘value’ and ‘prefer.’ I value the fact that minutes are given in preference to feet or yards, which mean very little to me or 95% of the planet, but I would infinitely prefer SI measurements. If people really prefer minute-based distances to standard metrology can we expect to see new road signs giving distances between London and Birmingham in minutes or hours eventually replacing existing signs? I doubt it. I understand that the cost to update all the TfL signs is prohibitive but spending money updating signs and still getting it wrong because of a possible backlash from customary fundamentalists is is cowardly, feeble and just throwing money away needlessly .


  2. It would be awesome if someone could fund a survey by an impeccable British university of tourists in London asking what they would prefer in distance signage and why. I bet the overwhelming majority will prefer true distance signs and in metric to boot.

    Then show the results to TfL and publicize the results in the media.


  3. By stating that a distance is a “5 minutes’ walk” rather than stating that it is 400 metres can produce a few bizarre situations. It is certainly about 400 metres from the London Bridge Pier to the Tower Millennium Pier, but, unless one can walk on water, it will take a lot longer than five minutes. Likewise, the entrance to the Royal Mews is about 400 metres from Green Park, but trying to walk (not run) it in five minutes would involve scaling two walls and risking the ire of Her Majesty’s chief security officer.


  4. Quite apart from people walking at different paces it also depends on why one is walking. If I were heading for a scheduled meeting on a fine time line I would walk briskly. More to the point though, if I were a tourist, at whom this information is aimed it would be quite different. I would be dawdling along, distracted by hopefully interesting sites along the way and taking photographs. In no way would I be time based. Would any tourist cross a London bridge without stopping to see the view? Would the tourist Board want them to?


  5. That the pedestrian signs are provided for Londoners rather than visitors shows how they’ve focused in the wrong direction from the off.


  6. Paul,

    I think these signs are done this way to avoid a confrontation. Whoever is insisting on it is just using the population as an excuse. There’s no real proof people want to know times. But the facts are, if they do metres, the get complaints from the Luddites. If they do yards, they get complaints from the younger generation.

    If it was me, I’d do metres and tell the Luddites off.


  7. @Cliff:

    It’s even more infuriating where [non-] legible London is extended to cycling. I very nearly always have an odometer displayed, but often not a clock. The range of speeds will vary more than walking—where the concept of an ‘average speed’ is pretty shaky to start with. It is pretty telling that Mike Brown’s letter does not mention what this ‘average walking speed’ might be or whether it is even consistent from one sign to the next. If I intend to stop along the way (e.g. 🍺), I’d have to start messing about with the trip timer/ stopwatch to account for the non-moving time. Does this ‘average’ include all the motor traffic lights where walking and cycling are deprioritised, i.e. all of them in London? Like you say, officialdom would never dream of doing this for motoring. It is probably another form of fence-sitting in response to some historic ARM vandalism or deluge of harassment, as Daniel Jackson suggests.

    All the French private roadside adverts do something similar. But they seem to be using John Frewen-Lord’s rule-of-thumb of 60 km/h or 1 min = 1 km—irrespective of class of road, prevailing motor speeding limits or mode of transport—which AFAICT everyone converts back into a distance before it is useful for navigation purposes!

    Small mercy that TFL are using the correct SI-approved symbol for minute and not the DFT abomination!


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