Here we will look at some visible displays of miles that are totally unrelated to road transport, the one major area of British life where miles are used across the UK. The images shown in this article demonstrate the enormous influence of British mile-based road signs for speed and distance on British society.
When asked, “How many yards are there in one mile?”, 76% of respondents in a YouGov survey carried out in 2013 were unable to give the correct answer within the 10 seconds allowed. Despite three-quarters of the public not knowing the relationship between yards and miles, drivers are still expected to be familiar with the yards, miles and fractions of miles on British road signs.
Britons have shown that they are willing to accept the use of kilometres in some aspects of life in the UK. The use of kilometres is now well established for fitness equipment, marathon races, emission levels, science programmes and Ordnance Survey maps. The main obstacle to using kilometres on British road signs is a lack of political will to change them.
These images show the distance along the pier, pier length and the distance from or to a particular location in Southend.
Image shows the length of the Amazon basin in miles and the total area of its tributaries in square miles in the Oceanarium attraction in Bournemouth.
Image shows the distance to a branch of a famous restaurant chain in Bournemouth.
Notice showing the amount of beach space in Bournemouth.
Extraordinary weather events make front page news. Both express wind speeds in miles per hour.
NHS Hospital Distances
This notice at one NHS hospital shows the distances to other NHS hospitals in miles.
This image shows a public footpath sign for pedestrians in miles. It follows the DfT practice of using “m” for miles.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence (ref. DSC05760, 27 June 2022, 13:42, Author: Neil Tilbrook).
This image shows the ball speed of a serve in miles per hour in a tennis match at Wimbledon.
I am sure that MV readers can find lots of other places showing miles in areas of British life that have no connection to transport. Have you ever wondered why miles are used in all these areas only in the UK but not in other European countries? Elsewhere in Europe, you would see kilometres rather than miles.
Obviously it is because that is what is used on British roads. This strongly influences how Britons think about speeds and long distances. The one other major user of miles is the United States, the only other big country that still uses miles on its roads.
For years, the DfT has been using the standard line that “road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope”. In their responses to calls for the metrication of road signs, it is clear that they see it as just a transport issue but they won’t pay for it. If DfT ministers and officials really believe that, they should get out more and see the huge influence of mile-based road signs on many areas of British life.
11 thoughts on “Miles beyond transport”
My biggest gripe is the continued use of miles and yds in the countryside.
Despite OS maps being fully metric for many years, much of their spin-off publications are a dual miles (km) which is irksome to say the least.
I really cannot understand why walkers did not make the same rapid transition as cooks! Using metres to measure time over distance is so much simpler and far more useable than trying to convert fractions of a mile into a time over distance in yards or whatever. But then, we also have “steps”, just making things worse by adding yet another meaningless unit.
I’ve never understood ball speeds being shown in mph. The ball isn’t going to travel ‘miles’, nor will it travel for a number of hours.
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@metricnow 2022-12-29 at 15:04
Yes, totally agree with that, but also with car speeds.
Few cars will ever maintain any speed for an hour, or at least not in UK. Metres/second is far more useable and can be related to easily. For many years now I have used metres/min when walking and it works very well indeed. A lot more sensible than “4 mph” which seems a bit awkward to regulate.
As mentioned before the experience in Ireland and in Canada demonstrate the beneficial knock-on effects of metric speed limit and distance signs on the roadways in that everyday conversations shift to using metric units instead of Imperial and do so in short order.
True that m/s is a more useful speed in many contexts. However, automobile drivers are so used to distance/hour signs (as well as their dashboard speedometers) that it makes practical sense to convert mph signs to km/h signs as was done in Ireland and Canada.
The benefits would be substantial by ultimately eliminating Imperial from everyday usage, advertising, media, etc. thus reducing the metric muddle considerably and ultimately to zero.
It would not hurt our efforts to convert the USA to metric if Americans (including government officials, legislators, etc.) who visit the UK in the future would hopefully experience a fully metric country. As the thinking goes, if our mother country and source of US Customary can finally ditch the old ways and embrace metric, why can’t the USA as the lone significant hold-out finally join the rest of the world to use metric? This could likely shift the Overton Window in their minds towards accepting metric and make them more favorable to policies that would at least promote metric if not finally have us embark on a full-fledged conversion program.
Once the USA converts, that would be final nail in the coffin of Imperial and its offshoots. Just think of all the products, films, TV and radio programs, etc. that would flood the entire world using only metric. Now that’s what I call Nirvana! 🙂
One of my pet hates are maps such as the one at https://www.dreamstime.com/close-up-you-here-marker-directional-map-sign-covent-garden-london-uk-march-famous-tourist-area-lots-shops-image177836034. While it is great to have an arrow marked “You are here”, the circles showing how many minutes it takes to walk any distance are misleading. Ideally those circles should show metres rather than minutes – after all distances in metres can go through walls or over rivers, but I have incredible difficulty walking through walls and I am rather loathe to swim where the circle suggest that I should walk.
As an aside, quoting distances on a map such as this in metres or in kilometres makes very little difference; 750 metres is 0.75 kilometres, but how many yards are there in 3/4 of a mile?
Every Saturday, The Times “Weekend” supplement features a countryside walk. Today (31 December 2022), being the Saturday before a bank holiday, 20 walks were featured. I studied them and the general style guide appears to be that the OS grid reference and relevant Landranger OS map number is given for the start point of each walk. Distances of half a mile or more are given in miles whereas lesser distances are given in metres. On checking today’s newspaper, I did not see any mention of kilometres or of yards. Furthermore did I see any mention of altitudes, so I could not identify whether they would use feet or metres in such instances.
I agree with Martin. Using units of time to represent distance, especially on maps, is bonkers.
On the London wayfinding signs, it seems that one “minute walk” is actually equal to 80 metres. So, the circle on the map with a radius of “15 minute walk” is really 1200 metres, and the “5 minute walk” circles are 400 metres.
I totally agree that distances given in minutes is ridiculous. Unfortunately it seem rather widespread in other countries also.
The daftest part is that if given in (walking, not straight line!!) metres it is so easy to work out exactly how long it will take given ones current mood and fitness. As I say often, there is a vast difference between a tourist type amble looking at things and a quick dash to an appointment or bus stop.
Using circle distances is totally meaningless.
The folks who make signs showing “distances” as walking times don’t take into account folks with disabilities, injuries, or just plain old age. At 73 I can say that I cannot walk the posted distances in the times they claim!
There are two aspects to this. One is the size of units and the other is the effect on society of the DFT’s failure to metricate our road signs.
I’ll deal first with the units size. Miles/km per hour or feet/metres per second?
Motor vehicles are used for journeys. A journey covers miles or kilometres rather than feet or metres for distance. Hence it has become customary for vehicle speedometers to be calibrated in miles or kilometres per hour. People want to assess time required for a journey, and mph or km/h relates well to average speeds. The fact that a car travelling at 70 mph is unlikely to travel at that constant speed for a full hour is beside the point. If we wish the indicate the speed of a vehicle at any instant, mph or km/h is as good as any other units. Calculation of a journey time would be more difficult if we measured vehicle speeds in metres per second.
Hence we come to the speed of a tennis ball. The electronic indicators at Wimbledon indicate speed in miles per hour because that is what people are familiar with. Few people see a device measuring in feet per second or metres per second in their everyday life. Those few that do probably work in some sort of laboratory.
Later this month, the Grand Slam tennis tournament from the other side of the world will be starting up at the Rod Laver arena in Melbourne. There, ball speeds will be indicated in km/h. Again it is a case of what people are familiar with; speedometers in Australia have been in km/h for over 50 years.
Wimbledon, it seems, feels obliged to keep aligned with what the British are familiar with. Though athletic records are recorded internationally in metric units, ball speed does not affect records; it is provided for interest only. This therefore is an example of miles beyond transport. Perhaps some staunch tennis fans could try to persuade Wimbledon to display ball speeds in both km/h and mph – not ideal but a step forward in present circumstances. It would provide a better impression for the rest of the world. In July, no doubt, the Australians will be watching Wimbledon on television. I would hate to think of them thinking, “Look at those poor old Pommies – still using miles per hour. We did away with them half a century ago.”
The first time I recall seeing ball speeds in any units at all was in Test matches (on television) when I seem to think they were shown in km/h in matches held in Australia. Showing the speed of the ball as if it were a moving vehicle seems quite a recent thing to me. I don’t remember that from years ago. Perhaps they wouldn’t have had the technology even to measure the speed of the ball years ago. So I suppose we Brits simply decided to follow suit in ‘our own’ units for tennis at Wimbledon. Given that most if not all sports are in metric units anyway today (horse racing is an exception, I think), it seems retrograde to use imperial units in modern-day tennis. I wonder how the good people at Wimbledon would react to being asked to think about this. I’d prefer to see the ball speed shown in metres per second as I could visualise that most easily (and I think most British viewers could too, if they thought about it for half a second), but I’d settle for km/h if it were felt it had to follow on from mph as a vehicle speed indication.