Within a week of moving to New York City, you gain a grasp of “the grid” — streets run east-west, avenues run north-south, and everything follows a pretty simple numerical system. That is, until you get below Houston or pop into another borough. New York is known as a walkable city, but many of the walkers quickly lose their bearings in its concrete jungle. In fact, 10% of New Yorkers are lost at any given time.
We spoke about New York’s walkability with Michael Bierut, a partner at NYC-based design firm Pentagram who’s been working with New York’s Department of Transportation for two years. The DOT wants to improve urban mobility, and it partnered with Pentagram for the LOOK! campaign and to create the city’s new signage that displays parking information in a much clearer, hierarchical way. The design consultancy’s current DOT project is WalkNYC, a pedestrian wayfinding system. The project was inspired by London’s wayfinding system, and it required the collaboration of several firms — Pentagram teamed up with CityID, T-Kartor, RBA Group and Billings Jackson to form a team collectively known as PentaCityGroup.
While some might not consider walking within the DOT’s jurisdiction, Bierut lauds DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s broad definition of ‘transportation.’ In New York City, there are subways, buses, taxis, shuttles, Citi Bikes and our own two feet. But the systems for these options needs to be improved. “There’s lots of competition for every inch of sidewalk, every inch of road, every parking space — it’s not easy to get around in New York,” says Bierut. But by addressing the people’s needs — making parking signs clearer and creating user-centric maps — the city becomes a better, more livable, less stressful place.
Pedestrian maps became a priority for several reasons. For starters, they actually encourage people to walk, and physical activity in a good thing, especially in obesity-ridden America. Research in London found that people took the Tube for short rides that, when you factor in wait time, end up taking longer than it would to walk. Walking, of course, is healthier than sitting on a subway car, and it creates less emissions than car or bus rides. Plus, more walkers means there’s less stress on the subway system.
Image: City ID
But there’s also an economic benefit to walking — there are thousands of small businesses in the city that rely heavily on foot traffic. More walkers on sidewalks means more traffic — and more revenues — for these businesses. Lastly and most obviously, we need maps because we get lost. Many New Yorkers are confident about their wayfinding abilities, when in fact, they’re only confident about the routes they typically take — they get lost easily in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
It was clear New York City’s pedestrians needed a better map. But as Bierut says, figuring out what information to display — and how best to convey it — on the map “ain’t simple.”
“You’re representing a complex, three-dimensional physical reality in two dimensions on a flat surface,” says Bierut. And that takes a lot of design, data and diligence.
Bierut had created wayfinding signage before, particularly in airports. But cities present a unique challenge. “In airports, most people arrive in the same doors and they have the same goal — they eventually want to get to some gate and get on an airplane,” says Bierut. In a city, though, people enter many ways, and they don’t have the same goal. “It’s hard to predict where they want to go, how fast they want to get there and what information will help them find that the most quickly. There’s not one flow.”
His team segmented people into clusters — live nearby, work nearby, tourist, never been here — to determine what information would be most helpful to each group. To ensure the maps would be legible and straightforward, the WalkNYC teams interviewed people about wayfinding, asked them to draw mental maps of New York and learned what areas are particularly hard to navigate. Then, the research team conducted myriad user tests to determine what mapping techniques are actually useful. With all of this data in hand, the team determined how to make the maps understandable, consistent, familiar and informative (but not cluttered) for first-time visitors and seasoned New Yorkers alike.
Bierut likens the mapping process to editing: “We had to figure out a rationale for where the signs should be placed, and for what information should be on the signs and how dense that information should be.” And, being Pentagram, they had to make sure it was beautiful.
DOT studies found one-third of New Yorkers don’t know how to find true north. Most people prefer a “head’s up map,” wherein the map is oriented to the user, perhaps a byproduct of our dependence on constantly-adapting smartphone GPS.
“I’m not sure we would have done the map like this in a pre-GPS world. But now, people don’t want to rotate it in their heads,” says Bierut. “They want to look at it and know which way to go without having to turn the map.”
Since New York City is a patchwork of neighborhoods, WalkNYC maps typically feature a zoomed-in neighborhood map and a zoomed-out regional map, to provide local context. (And these maps are to scale, unlike the geographically warped MTA subway map, designed by Michael Hertz Associates in 1979.) There’s a circle that indicates what’s in a 5-minute walk of your location. The maps have a neutral color scheme of grays, greens and soft yellows so they’re not flashy ‘bouquets’ on every corner, and the font is a custom version of Helvetica, Helvetica DOT, which replaces the square dots above lowercase I and J with round dots.
Image: Hamish Smythe
Perhaps the most important element of a map is its “graphic language” — Pentagram recast the icons for souvenir shops, playgrounds and Wi-Fi hotspots. The firm also redefined the way landmarks — a museum, a library or a statue, for example — are conveyed. It turns out that it’s not just historical landmarks like the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building that help people find their bearings. Other visual cues, such as a unique architecture or a bull statue provide context, too. Thus, WalkNYC’s maps feature landmarks ranging from the New York Public Library (including the lions!) and the New Museum to the Port Authority bus station and Long Island City’s Pepsi-Cola sign. Rather than using a generic museum or park symbol, each icon is a rough silhouette of the thing it represents, so you know what to look for.
“[The icons] needed to be sufficiently reductive so that when you put them on a map, people can tell what they were,” says Bierut. To create maximum context within the map, Pentagram included a combination of buildings, monuments and parks that were signature wayfinding tools. “We’re using these icons almost as miniature logos … it turned out they didn’t have to be famous, they just had to be recognizable,” says Bierut.
The maps are clean, simple and useful. What’s even more exciting is that all of the data and design that went into the maps is fully digitized. It can easily be updated, it can be deployed as an app, and feasibly, the City could open the map up to developers in something like NYC Big Apps. WalkNYC might just be the beginning, a platform that sets an exciting foundation for urban mobility tools.
In a pilot stage, WalkNYC maps are deployed in 100 kiosks in five areas in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens (though these maps are the same design as the ones at the 300+ Citi Bike stations). With such limited deployment, it’s hard to evaluate their efficacy as pedestrian wayfinding tools.
“This is really designed to be a system. If you’re designing a subway system, you could design two stations and test both of them, but you don’t know whether it really works until you build the whole system and people use it to get around,” he says. “It needs a critical mass before that question can be answered in a definitive way.”
Already, though, a third party found that WalkNYC’s maps have a 4.9 (out of 5) usability rating, Bierut says. He hopes that the map system will indeed prove useful on a mass scale, helping tourists and New Yorkers alike discover new parts of town.
“There are really interesting things to be found that might be buried deep in your guidebook, but actually are just a few steps away,” he says. And the maps’ information would be useful whether you’re a tourist or a New Yorker with seven minutes to spare between errands.
“The idea is that it helps people find their way, makes them healthier, makes the city a healthier place, has an economic benefit, and just generally is a way of making New Yorkers more conscious of the city that they live in,” says Bierut. But the WalkNYC concept likely won’t be limited to New Yorkers — other cities have taken note of WalkNYC and called Pentagram for more information.