How Wayfinding Can Reduce Congestion
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How Wayfinding Can Reduce Congestion

Colourful signs and consistent maps help tourists and Torontonians alike get around faster

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

From raccoons in the subway to daily delays, commuters in Toronto put up with a lot as they search for parking for cars and bikes, transfer between regional transit systems and the TTC, then navigate the final stretch of sidewalk to their destination.

Getting around the city is equally challenging for visitors who struggle with which subway exits to use and where to board streetcars. In both cases, complicated connections between different forms of transportation often result in more cars on the roads and a host of negative impacts including greater gridlock and reduced air quality.

Encouraging multimodal transportation means looking at everything from seating at bus stops to subway signals—but wayfinding is one part of the solution.

Wayfinding is an approach to mapping urban space and providing navigational aids that makes cities more legible by using landmarks and intuitive routes that build on each person’s mental map of their surroundings. In practice, wayfinding systems typically consist of a combination of physical elements such as signs and info pillars as well as specially developed maps that can be installed at key locations and made available in print and online.

Photo of wayfinding in Bath.

Photo of wayfinding in Bath.

In England, the city of Bath has had a wayfinding system in place since 2012. Thirty-three elements are installed throughout the town centre. The materials that are used respond to the city’s historic architecture while the shape of the maps reflects the geography of the region.

But Bath’s wayfinding system is more than an attractive addition to a tourist destination—it is a practical tool to help people get around, and, by extension, improve public health. An evaluation of the system found both tangible and intangible benefits of the new signage. Research identified not just improved perceptions of public spaces but also reduced levels of air pollutants. Better information enabled people to walk, bike, or take transit rather than drive, and these choices had a measurable impact on air quality.

In more ways than one, Toronto is an ocean away from Bath. The English town relies on tourism: although there are fewer than 90,000 year-round residents, four million people visit each year. Despite different economic conditions, Fiona Chapman, manager of pedestrian projects for the City of Toronto’s Transportation Services, is confident that wayfinding can benefit not just tourists but also residents of Toronto and commuters throughout the region.

The City of Toronto’s wayfinding strategy was released in 2012 and a prototype was unveiled outside of Old City Hall in October 2014. A pilot project based on the strategy, including 32 elements of different shapes and sizes, was launched in the Financial District last June. A formal evaluation of the pilot will be ready in the fall, but there is already anecdotal evidence that wayfinding is changing Toronto’s streetscape for the better.

According to Chapman, by combining current information with historical context, wayfinding is “an opportunity to ground people in where they are and what was there before.” After years of research and public consultation, the maps and accompanying text are designed so that different groups can take advantage of the same wayfinding components.

For a tourist, finding the easiest route to and from a hotel means more time for seeing the sites and shopping along the way. For someone living in Toronto, wayfinding encourages discoveries closer to home, because in Chapman’s words, it restores “the joy of getting lost.” But perhaps most importantly, wayfinding has the potential to improve commutes by providing consistent information in an immediately recognizable format at every stage of the journey.

For first-time visitors and lifelong residents, wayfinding also addresses equity issues. The availability of maps and other related resources in public spaces bridges divides of age and income and ensures that everyone, not just those who have access to digital technology, can move through the city with confidence.

Looking ahead to the citywide rollout of wayfinding, Chapman is also aware of spatial differences within Toronto. Since the Financial District is a dense, walkable area, the maps for the pilot project show a five-minute walking radius. However, Chapman acknowledges that further from the downtown core, “five minutes may not get you where you want.” For this reason, maps are also being tested in midtown and suburban locations in order to understand how the system works throughout the city.

For anyone who ever emerged from a subway on the wrong side of an intersection or missed a bus while trying to find the stop, wayfinding signals a step in the right direction to reduce congestion in Toronto and strengthen connections between different forms of transportation.

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