Public Works: These Maps Are Made For Walking
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Public Works: These Maps Are Made For Walking

Would more people get around on foot if they knew how easy it is?

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Image courtesy City of Pontevedra

Walkability matters. Between pollution, congestion, and the high cost of maintaining and driving a car, being able to get from A to B bipedally is becoming a big selling point for neighbourhoods, and even whole cities.

The basic requirement for walkability is simple: keep stuff close together. But the human mind is a strange thing, and the way we choose to interact with our world is often dictated by the way it’s presented to us. Thus, if you want people to walk, it pays to remind them that they can.

When Pontevedra, in north-western Spain, began to notice its city centre being overrun with automotive traffic, it took action. According to the city blog Polis, Pontevedra installed speed bumps, reduced speed limits to a crawl, and even banned motorized traffic in large areas of the city.

But the city also did something less dramatic: it made a walking map of the city centre designed after the subway maps found in many large cities. The Metrominuto map uses colour-coded lines to show the distances between points of interest, as well as the estimated travel time based on an average walking speed of five kilometres per hour.

To make the maps more user friendly, the city has installed wayfinding banners on the streets so pedestrians (tourists, in particular) can be sure they’re on the right track.

Toronto does pretty well walkability-wise, at least according to Seattle-based Walk Score, which uses its research to rank cities and neighbourhoods by how easy they are to get around by foot. We come in second among cities in Canada, behind cozy, compact Vancouver.

Pontevedra has a population of about 83,000 people, so mapping the main walking area is relatively easy. In Toronto it would be impractical—not to mention discouraging—to advise tourists that it will take them seven and a half hours to walk from the Toronto Zoo to High Park. But a series of area maps—the downtown business district, the Annex, Queen West West etc—would work well for this city of neighbourhoods, and wouldn’t be expensive to create.

Needless to say, Toronto is no stranger to pedestrian maps, notably those on the much-maligned Astral advertising pillars, which offer sidewalk stompers a view of the surrounding area along with the estimated walking distance to locations of interest. (The underground PATH system also has maps, although they can be difficult to decipher in the absence of above-ground landmarks. There’s a legend among PATH old timers of a family from Ohio who ventured underground in search of a men’s room and had to be rescued three weeks later, malnourished and disoriented, from a makeshift campsite in the TD Centre food court.)

However, the Pontevdra-style maps have distinct advantages (besides not being obscured by garish promotions for the latest telco gougefest). The cheerful familiarity and simplicity of the subway-style design is one. And then there’s the useful info about times between multiple destinations. Plus, this style of map is simple enough that it can be distributed in hard copy.

Something similar for Toronto might just encourage more people to take the city in smaller steps.