FUTURES - Navigating the City

Supporting the unfamiliar traveller.

Project details

Full project title: FUTURES: Navigating the city - supporting the unfamiliar traveller

Sponsor: EPSRC (Sustainable Urban Environment Programme)

Lead investigator: Professor Glenn Lyons

Principal researcher: Sally Everett (University of Bedfordshire)

Project partners: University of Southampton and University of Leeds

Start date: April 2004

Finish date: July 2007

Project briefing sheet: Download the briefing sheet document (PDF)


FUTURES (Future Urban Technologies: Undertaking Research to Enhance Sustainability) is a major 5-year research programme as part of the EPSRC's Sustainable Urban Environment (SUE) Programme. FUTURES runs from April 2004 until March 2009. The principal academic partners are the Transportation Research Group at the University of Southampton (lead partner), the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds and the Centre for Transport and Society (CTS) at the University of the West of England. The consortium also involves a number of stakeholder partners. FUTURES is comprised of a number of key elements or activities. There are seven major research activities for which CTS is responsible for three:

Project summary

Statement of Need

Urban environments with their dense development, mixture of land uses and array of business, leisure and retail facilities have much to offer and attract large movements of people and vehicles. However, such environments can be confusing or overwhelming for the unfamiliar individual. Cities often present complex networks of roads, streets, parks and pedestrian areas making it challenging for the individual to successfully or easily navigate the city and explore destinations or reach desired destinations. If people are unable to navigate the city successfully then their experience is compromised and the collective impacts for the city are likely to be adverse.

There has been considerable activity in the UK in the past six years in the field of traveller information services. We are approaching a point where it is becoming possible to use such services to plan door-to-door journeys and journeys which involve different modes. The principal effort has focused upon information relating to the route, timing and cost of journeys. What has received far less attention is the provision of information that can assist the traveller in navigating their journey or wayfinding by themselves, either on foot, by bicycle, by car or by public transport. This is not to suggest that such information is not provided but rather that the necessary research has not been conducted to ensure that such provision is both useful (i.e. the information is what is needed by the traveller) and usable (i.e. the traveller is easily able to make use of the information). It is the intention of this part of the FUTURES Programme to address this shortcoming.

Wayfinding (a term coined as far back as 1960) has been defined as "a system of clues comprising visual, audible and tactile elements" (cited in Aust, 2003). It is not simply a matter of signage but also involves components such as architecture, lighting, landscape and landmarks. An individual's ability to navigate a space is governed by:

  1. successfully establishing their current location and orientation;
  2. successfully performing wayfinding tasks; and
  3. the ability to accumulate wayfinding experience concerning that space (Foltz, 1998).

Wayfinding experience takes the form of a cognitive [mental] map - an imaginary map describing what is believed to be "the analogue of the environment we 'see in our minds' or imagine" (Passini, 1984). Such maps have become central to the theoretical discourse on spatial orientation and wayfinding. The discourse suggests there are two types of (cognitive) map - linear-sequential which relates to an individual's path of movement in space (i.e. a route map); and spatial whereby the environment is understood spatially independently of particular routes (Passini, 1984). Wayfinding aids can range from two extremes - maps and verbal descriptions (narratives) (Freska, 2003). Effective aids are not necessarily those which are most detailed and precise but those which are attuned to the representation of the urban environment in people's cognitive maps - "it is exactly the sketchy nature of human cognitive maps that make them such a powerful tool for navigation" useful representations cannot be achieved without sacrificing completeness and precision" (Chown, in Golledge, 1999).

A number of authors in the literature (e.g. Golledge, 1999 and Freska, 2003) point towards the fact that wayfinding theory is not being fully translated into practical guidance on developing wayfinding aids (particularly information service aids as opposed to those which derive from the layout and design of the urban fabric and infrastructure itself). Indeed if existing sources of wayfinding support are consulted it becomes self-evident that the (applied) field is far from mature. For example, most organisations will now provide a printable 'directions' page on their websites to assist visitors reaching their premises. Consulting even a small sample of such pages reveals significant differences in content, design and style with differing implications for how useful and usable they are to the visitors in question. In other words, the design of wayfinding aids does not (in many cases) appear to be theoretically founded. It is also likely to be failing to accommodate the different usability requirements of different people. A simple but significant example is the difference between men and women: "If men didn't design maps that way, we wouldn't have to turn them upside down', many women complain" (Pease and Pease, 2001).

New technology provides, increasingly, the opportunity to collect, manage, process and disseminate information to the public. This is particularly true of the many-to-many capability of the Internet and the means to receive information on the move afforded by mobile devices. It would seem, therefore, that new technology could have a major part to play in delivering (improved) wayfinding support to unfamiliar urban travellers. First, however, it will be necessary to better understand what support the public require and how to provide it. This will be a key task for this research.


  1. To work with leading urban authorities and service providers associated with wayfinding to advance the field of knowledge and application.
  2. To complete the review of wayfinding literature commenced in the FUTURES scoping study.
  3. To critically review existing electronic and paper-based systems purporting to assist (unfamiliar) travellers in navigating the urban environment.
  4. To probe the cognitive maps of travellers and urban dwellers by exploring how individuals communicate suggested routes and wayfinding advice to others and how that advice is judged and used.
  5. To formulate guidelines on the provision of wayfinding information support for, in particular, pedestrians and motorists.
  6. To develop and test one or more wayfinding services in two case study cities (Bristol and Manchester).


Aust, S. (2003). An overview of three wayfinding systems. ArtGr479 Wayfinding Design Iowa State University, Spring.

Foltz, M.A. (1998). Design principles for wayfinding. in Designing Navigable Information Spaces, MSc Thesis, MIT.

Freska, C. (2003). Spatial aspects of task-specific wayfinding maps: a representation-theoretic perspective. ArtGr479 Wayfinding Design Iowa State University, Spring.

Golledge, R.G. (1999). Precis Wayfinding Behaviour: Cognitive Mapping and Other Spatial Processes. Psycholoquy, 10(036).

Passini, R. (1984). Wayfinding in Architecture.

Pease, A. and Pease, B. (2001). Why men don't listen & women can't read maps.