In amongst all of London's recent travel news (Western Congestion Zone, who needs it?), some good green tidings have slipped out relatively unnoticed. Boris is busy spending money, on pedestrians. More specifically, on signage for pedestrians. Many Londoners, it seems, choose to hop into their cars or ride on public transport when in fact they could have walked. It's a particular problem in the centre of town. Often important locations are quite close together but, because people haven't internalised a mental map of the capital, they don't realise how close. Stick up some better maps and and signs and fingerposts, and more people will choose to take the two-footed option. That's the theory anyway.
The project's called Legible London, and it "proposes to change the existing fragmented approach to walking information into a single reliable, consistent and authoritative system." Or, in other words, it's designed to make walking easier. A trial version kicked off in the Bond Street area exactly a year ago. 19 "miniliths" were set into West End pavements, each standing tall like an Arthur C Clarke 2001 black slab. They feature directional info, detailed maps and a street name index, plus a mobile number you can ring for further information. One key addition is an indication of how long it takes to walk somewhere, because people understand time better than miles, yards or kilometres. If you're trying to make your way on foot around unfamiliar streets at the top of Mayfair, these signs really help.
They don't get in the way, either. You might expect a big black block to be a bit of an obstruction, but separate decluttering has ensured otherwise. Gone are lots of unnecessary bits of street furniture and a surfeit of unnecessary obsolete signs. Both minimal and comprehensive, that's the plan.
The new signs are really rather lovely. Maybe it's the clear clean design, or maybe it's the inspired choice of black and yellow, but the enamel surface looks positively lickable. No surprise, then that the Legible London prototypes have met with a very positive reaction from the public. 85% of interviewees said the new system was easy-to-use, two-thirds of respondents said it would encourage them to walk more, and nine out of 10 felt the system should be rolled out across London. So it's going to be. The original Bond Street focus is to be extended along Oxford and Regent Streets over the next few months. Three further lucky areas will see the system rolled out during autumn 2009, and if the cash holds out a lot more of the capital could follow.
South Bank and Bankside: That makes sense. The Thames riverside is already teeming with strolling pedestrians, especially at weekends, many of whom only ever stick to the water's edge for fear of getting lost. It's stepping inshore which requires better signage, not least because there are absolutely no underground stations along the South Bank. And the quickest walking route from the London Eye to the Tate Modern isn't along the Thames, but who'd know that without decent maps?
Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Holborn: That makes sense. There's a warren of non-griddy streets around the eastern West End, and it can be quite hard to tell where you're heading. I suspect TfL have pushed for this area to be included as part of their continuing campaign to get tourists to walk (not tube) to Covent Garden. Short of renaming this crowded deep level station "SmellyPlace Keepaway", it's only decent ground level signage that'll encourage passengers to walk to Covent Garden from somewhere else.
Richmond and Twickenham: That makes sense. Boris likes the suburbs, so why should the centre of town reap all the benefits? Clustering a load of miniliths around Richmond Bridge will be a good test of the system's suitability across more typical swathes of Outer London. Might even encourage a few more drivers to leave their gas guzzlers at home.
Those attending the VIP shopping day in Oxford Street next weekend will be able to find out more by stopping off at TfL's "walking trailer". Further details can be also found on the Legible London website - dormant for the last ten months but which has suddenly reawoken in a flurry of mild activity. One particular statistic in the latest press release caught my eye - the claim that "109 journeys between Central London Tube stations are quicker by foot than Tube." With the aid of Legible London's "Yellow Book", I wonder if I can name all of those tomorrow...