|METRICATION: 5% complete|
|Distances shown in kilometres and metres on tourist information signs.||Distances shown in miles and fractions.|
|Sign specifications in millimetres.||Distances shown in yards.|
|Sign positioning in metres.||Distances shown in mins.|
In the UK, pedestrian signage has always been the poor relation of signage for motor vehicles. There is no single national standard for pedestrian wayfaring signs, and in many town centres, there is often no pedestrian signage worth speaking of at all.
Finger post signs, or signs that indicate the direction of named locations, usually lack distance information. This greatly reduces a sign’s usefulness and is unhelpful to people unfamiliar with an area when deciding whether to walk the whole way to a destination, or whether they should use public transport, or hail a taxi.
Where signs have distance information, this is often in miles, or fractions of miles, even though the imperial system of measurement ceased to be taught in schools in 1974. For many people, a mile just means a long way. It is a distance that is difficult to visualise, and as such, fractions of miles become equally meaningless.
Some pedestrian signs show distances in terms of estimated journey times, where one minute walk is the distance travelled in one minute by an able-bodied adult while walking at a constant defined speed, unhindered by crowds or adverse weather conditions.
With yards being especially meaningless to visitors from abroad, and signs in minutes being too vague, the universally-understood metre is generally the preferred unit of distance for informal signs and posters directing customers to nearby restaurants and other leisure venues.
Network Rail and London Underground have also used metres on wayfinding signs for many years. Health and safety regulations require the use of metric units for public safety notices. It makes sense therefore that signs that may be useful in emergency situations, such as those indicating the direction of exits at stations, should show distances in metres.
The Department for Transport
Signs that fall within the remit of the Department for Transport’s Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) are required to use one of the following units of measurement formats if they show distances:
- miles and fractions
- hours and minutes
Despite the UK being an almost completely metric country, the Department for Transport still does not permit the metre or kilometre to be used for distances on its pedestrian signs, even though its own regulations specify the dimensions of such signs and their siting using metric units. However, since most pedestrian signs are not subject to the TSRGD, they are perfectly legal. That the legality of metric signs is an issue at all is probably unique to the UK.
Distances in miles, fractions and yards
Chapter 7 of the Department for Transport’s Traffic Signs Manual (2018 edition) specifies the rules for expressing distances in miles and yards on pedestrian direction signs:
- For distances less than ½ mile, the distance can be shown either in miles to the nearest ¼ mile, or in yards to the nearest 10 yards, followed by the word ‘yards’ or ‘yds’. However the use of yards is preferred because it “is appropriate for pedestrian signs”.
- For distances of ½ mile or more, but less than 3 miles, the distance is shown in miles to the nearest ¼ mile, with the fractions ¾, ½ and ¼ being used.
- For distances of 3 miles or more, the distance is shown in whole numbers to the nearest mile.
- Distances in miles are shown without a unit name or symbol, unless any other distance on the same sign is shown in yards, in which case the abbreviation ‘m’ is used for all distances in miles.
Why pedestrian signs in miles, fractions and yards are unfit for purpose
Miles can be mistaken for metres – On signs that show distances in both miles and yards, the regulations specify that the abbreviation ‘m’ should be used for distances in miles. This is presumably to avoid distances in miles being confused with yards. Unfortunately, the Department for Transport seem to be oblivious to the fact that the abbreviation they prescribe for miles is identical to the standard symbol for the metre – the unit of distance that most people would expect to see on pedestrian signs in the 21st century.
Incomprehension – Miles and yards have not been taught in schools for almost 50 years. Most pedestrians do not know how many yards are in a mile, and therefore cannot be expected to have a good understanding of distances shown in miles and yards.
Basic calculations are difficult – For those who do know the number of yards in a mile, even the most simple arithmetic using miles and yards is cumbersome.
Visualising distances in miles is not easy – For most people, a mile is just “a long distance”, and a quarter of a mile is just “a shorter long distance”.
Inconsistent unit names – In Wales, due to the lack of a standard language-independent symbol for ‘yard’, pedestrian signs showing distances in yards are required to be expressed in both Welsh and English. This is done by halving the text size of the two unit name variants so that they can both fit into the same space as a single unit name.
A consequence of this is that the bilingual unit names cannot be read from as far away as a single unit name, or indeed the language-independent ‘m’ symbol if metres were used.
Non-standard obsolete units – For nearly 40 years, the standard weights and measures system for practically all official purposes in the UK has been the metric system. Roads, public footpaths and pedestrian signs are all designed and constructed using metric units, not imperial. No other major country uses yards for pedestrian signs. In the 21st century, the measurement units used for public footpaths and road signs are long overdue for modernisation.
Legible London, A wayfinding study – 2006
Around 2005, a project called Legible London was set up to create a common wayfinding system for pedestrians in central London and the Olympic Park zone by 2012, extending to the rest of London by 2015. This was a joint initiative between Central London Partnership (CLP), Transport for London (TfL) and the central London local authorities. The aim was to make London a more walking-friendly city.
It had been known for some time that many people avoid walking, even short distances, if it requires them to navigate through unfamiliar territory. This was confirmed by field work, carried out for Legible London, which revealed that some travellers in London were taking the tube for short journeys that would be quicker if they walked. It was postulated that one of the reasons for this could have been lack of access to map information. The lack of pedestrian signs giving clear directional and distance information was also an obvious possibility.
In March 2006, Legible London published their recommendations in Legible London, A wayfinding study.
The study’s preliminary sign audit drew attention to the multiplicity of different signage systems that were in use at the time, and the inconsistency in whether and how distance was communicated, “Only some systems give distances on directional signs (fingerposts) and of those that do there is a varied approach of using either minutes, fractions of miles, metres or yards”.
“Minutes, miles, metres or yards? Across the systems there are inconsistencies which can be confusing for a pedestrian.”
Legible London, A wayfinding study – March 2006
It was not unexpected that the study’s conclusions would recommend the use of a single unit of distance for all pedestrian signs. However, a golden opportunity was missed by not opting for the metre as the standard unit.
Wayfinding signs, Central London – 2008
Instead, the signage system that emerged consisted of map-based signs with distances to locations shown using an improvised unit, the minute walk, which is the distance travelled in 60 seconds while walking.
Distances in minutes
For any destination on a wayfaring sign, its distance remains constant. A ‘minute walk’, on the other hand, is a widely variable distance. This is because the time taken to reach a destination depends on one’s speed of travel. In order to show destinations in minutes, it is therefore necessary to artificially define a standard walking speed.
The speed chosen by Legible London was 80 metres per minute, or 4.8 km/h, which represents a fair walking speed for an able-bodied adult. To convert a distance in metres to a value shown on a wayfaring sign in ‘mins’, the following mathematical relationship is used:
Legible London signs don’t show the walking speed that they use, but tourist maps of London, distributed during the 2012 Olympic Games, confirm that one minute walk is equal to 80 metres.
1 minute walk = 80 metres
A distance scale showing minutes – London Summer 2012 Map, TfL
As an extreme illustration of how widely variable the time taken to travel a ‘5 minute walk’ can be, at the 2012 Olympic Games, the winning time for the 400 metres, or 5 minute walk, was 43.94 seconds in the men’s event, and 49.55 seconds in the women’s event.
By 2008, Legible London’s new signage system had been installed in many prominent places in central London. The enamelled monolith-style signs feature maps with distance scales in the form of circles. The circumference of the circle labelled ‘5 minute walk’ passes through all the points on the map that are a distance of 5 minutes walk, as the crow flies, from the point marked, ‘You are here’.
Why was the minute walk chosen as the standard unit of distance?
The decision to adopt the minute walk for all pedestrian signage across London for the foreseeable future seems to have been justified solely by the results of a survey cited in the Legible London study: In March 2005, 284 pedestrians leaving Leicester Square tube station were asked a number of questions about their tube journey. The key finding seems to be that, “77% referred to relative distance by minutes rather than miles.”
That people exiting a tube station should refer to journeys in terms of minutes rather than miles is hardly surprising. What is surprising though, is that this result seems to have been taken out of context, and used to justify the use of minutes as the standard unit of distance for all new pedestrian signage.
The Legible London study gave no rationale for its apparent lack of consideration of the international norm of using metres for pedestrian signage. Nor, did it cite any other country where minutes were the standard unit of distance on pedestrian signs.
Legible London’s minute-based signage system is not an official national standard, but since its inception, it has been duplicated in several locations outside London.
Minutes after Legible London
Since the inception of Legible London wayfaring signs, the use of the ‘minute walk’ as a unit of distance has spread to other official pedestrian wayfaring signs.
Network Rail, which had previously used metres for all station wayfaring signs, now includes sign diagrams in its Wayfinding Design Manual that use ‘min’ for destinations.
Wayfinding Design Manual, Network Rail – December 2022
Transport for London’s Interchange Signs Standard includes diagrams for signs at bus stops with the distances of local points of interest indicated in ‘minutes’.
Interchange Signs Standard, TfL – Issue 5
Since 2016, the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions has permitted the use of journey times for pedestrian direction signs.
Why pedestrian signs in minutes are unfit for purpose
Imprecise – Because of the variable nature of a ‘minute walk’, any value shown in ‘mins’ can only ever be an approximation of the time taken by an individual when travelling to a destination on a particular occasion.
Discriminatory – By definition, a distance of one ‘minute walk’ applies to walkers only. Wheel chair users are explicitly excluded. The value shown in ‘mins’ is calculated for able-bodied adults. Such signs discrimate against everyone on a public footpath who cannot comfortably travel at a speed of 80 metres per minute.
Distances in ‘mins’ walked are also meaningless to joggers, runners, and anyone on roller skates.
Inconsistent unit names – There is no standard symbol for the word ‘minute’ or ‘hour’ that is currently acceptable for use in every local authority throughout the UK. For example, in Wales, when values in minutes or hours are shown, the unit name has to be shown in both Welsh and English.
Incompatible with cycle route signs – Many pedestrian footpaths are designed to be shared with cyclists. If cycle route signs on these pathways show distances using ‘mins’, separate values are required in order to cater for both cyclists and pedestrians.
Potential for confusion – Transport for London’s Cycleways Signing Guidance includes diagrams for adding cycle route information to Legible London wayfaring signs, with destinations shown in ‘mins’. Such signs are highly likely to confuse pedestrians because the unit used almost exclusively on Legible London signs is the ‘minute walk’ – which is shown using the same ‘mins’ abbreviation that is used for a ‘minute cycled’ on cycle route signs. However a ‘minute cycled’ is defined as the distance travelled in one minute at a constant speed of 16 km/h, which is more than 3 times further than the distance of a ‘minute walk’.
Cycleways Signing Guidance, TfL – September 2016
Pedestrians might see a distance of “8 mins” on such a sign and mistakenly believe it to mean only about 600 metres, rather than its actual meaning of about 2 km.
Multiple units muddle – The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) continues to prescribe pedestrian signs using miles, fractions and yards, as well as minutes and hour. Many local authorities also continue to choose to use metric pedestrian signs in locations where the TSRGD does not apply. This means that minutes can never completely replace the use of conventional distance units. The introduction of ‘mins’ has been responsible for worsening an already muddled multi-unit system of distance measurement on pedestrian signs.
In May 2020, social distancing was introduced as one of the measures to reduce the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Units of Measurement Regulations require that standard metric units are used for all measurements regarding health and public safety. Recommendations were made for people to keep 2 metres apart in public spaces. Signs reminding people to keep this distance apart became a common sight in stores.
The Department for Transport also issued diagrams for various temporary road signs to be used during the initial period of the pandemic. These included signs for pedestrians on public footpaths.
The use of metric units for these signs attracted no particular attention, as distances in metres are well understood. It is only noteworthy because the DfT tend to use yards for distances on conventional road signs for pedestrians, and in this instance, where the signs were clearly regarding public health, they quite rightly kept to the original metric units.
Social distancing signs – 2020
When road signs finally go metric, any politician that needs to approve the change, but is fearful that there might be public resistance to a switch from yards to metres, should be reassured by the fact there was no hint of any such reaction to the use of metres while social distancing measures were in force.
The metrication of pedestrian signs is long overdue. When pedestrian wayfaring and directional signs in the UK are finally converted to metric units, distances should be shown exclusively in metres to the nearest 50 metres using the standard ‘m’ symbol.
The metrication of pedestrian signs will present an opportunity to end the current haphazard practice of showing destinations in either miles, fractions, yards, ‘mins’, or no units at all.
Benefits of metric signs
Simple rules – In contrast to the complex rules for current signs, the rules for converting a distance to a value signed in metres are straight forward. The rules for rounding values do not change depending on whether the distance is long or short. The measurement unit used also remains the same regardless of the magnitude of the distance:
- All distances are shown in metres to the nearest 50 metres using the standard SI symbol for the metre.
Universally understood – The metre is the world standard unit of measurement for distance. Distances in metres shown using the standard ‘m’ symbol can be understood by anyone in the world, in any language. 96% of the world’s population live in countries where metres are used to indicate distances on direction signs.
Easy-to-understand scaleable values – Keeping the same unit of distance, and the same rules for rounding values, makes it easier to compare distances. Simple arithmetic involving journey lengths can be carried out with ease, without any of the cumbersome conversions needed when dealing with multiple imperial units. The contrast with the clunky measures used on current signs can be seen in the following table:
More appropriate step values – Showing all distances in metres to a resolution of 50 m will greatly improve the fidelity of distance information on pedestrian direction signs. Replacing signs that currently show distances of 3 miles or more with metric signs will increase the resolution by a factor of 32.
Compatible with units used by planners – Distances on metric pedestrian signs are easy to confirm. For example, using a standard 1:25 000 Ordnance Survey map, 4 mm on the map corresponds to 100 metres on the ground. This will reduce costs, especially when compared with the amount of work needed to confirm values signed in ‘mins’.
Easy to visualise distances – Distances are easier to visualise when expressed in multiples of 100 m, or 50 m, than when they are expressed in multiples of miles. Metric signs are therefore more meaningful.
Clarity and comprehension – Signing all destinations in metres, will increase understanding and will remove the confusion caused by the current practice of showing destinations in a mix of miles, fractions, yards, ‘mins’, or no units at all.
Compatible with standard maps – Maps used by walkers generally use metric scales such as 1:25 000 and 1:50 000, and are based on a kilometre grid. It makes sense for direction signs to use the same units.
Compatible with units used in sport – In athletics, all track events are in metres. People are familiar with the 100 metres sprint, and that one lap of the track is 400 metres. The longest track event is the 10 000 metres, which is equal to 25 laps.
Education – Pedestrians will finally get to use the units of distance that have been taught in school for 50 years, and school children will be able to relate the units that they learn in school to the world outside school.
FUN FACT :
In the final at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Kirani James completed the distance shown on Legible London signs as a ‘5 minute walk’ in a time of 43.94 seconds.