Pedestrian Wayfinding Program

Program Overview

Everyone has been lost at one time so we all know how stressful it can be not to know your way. Cities can be particularly challenging places to navigate and we use a lot of tools to understand them including our previous knowledge, our understanding of the arrangement of buildings, streets and landmarks, and various information. Together these tools help make a complex place easy to understand or more “legible”.

Cities that are not very legible create a number of problems. First, they increase the chances that people will get lost. Second, they reduce awareness of opportunities to use different modes of travel, such as transit. Third, they deter us from exploring, which means visitors stay in the tourist hotspots and new residents don’t build a knowledge of their city.

While it is difficult to change the arrangement of cities to make them more physically legible, it is possible to solve many of the problems by intelligently designing information to help people navigate more easily and to walk as part of longer journeys with transit or other services. Wayfinding projects include traditional signs and maps, but also extend to digital systems, public art and landscaping.

Google maps vs Real life at Occidental Park
Google maps shows Occidental Square as a generic green space. In reality it is one of Seattle’s most active public squares and an attractive route for walking.

People confused by technology
Technology is great but can still be challenging to use in the real world.

Why does Seattle need a wayfinding project?

To meet its growth and transportation aims, the City of Seattle has committed to increasing the percentage of trips made by walking to 35% by 2035. To achieve this ambitious aim, the City prepared a Pedestrian Master Plan in June 2017 that included a strategy to develop a coordinated wayfinding system (Strategy 5.2).

Wayfinding would not only make walking a simpler choice for many journeys, it would also help connect other transportation services that rely on pedestrian access. By increasing the awareness of walking as an option and the confidence that a walking journey will be supported, a wayfinding project is expected to help improve the walkability and accessibility of Seattle.

More people choosing to walk is not only good for people’s health and the environment, it is an important option for managing transportation demands, especially during the current period of growth and change.

Wayfinding statistics and bar graph

In the UK, a 2008 study (Transportation for London) revealed that 57% of Londoners said they would be motivated to walk more if provided with information on local walks. The study also found that 26% were worried about getting lost when walking.

What’s happening now?

Over the next year to June 2019, the City of Seattle will be working with a team of specialist wayfinding planners and designers to create a city-wide pedestrian wayfinding system. The outcome of the project will be a pilot project, a set of design standards and proposals for roll-out across the city.

This project is funded by a WSDOT Transit Coordination Grant, and has agency support from Seattle Department of Transportation, King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and the Downtown Seattle Association.

Throughout the year-long project, the project team will involve communities, local businesses, and tourism organizations to discuss what information people need to encourage them to walk and the benefits that a coordinated wayfinding system could produce.

While the opportunity is clear, the process is complicated. Many parts of the city are already covered with a lot of signs, and some agencies and communities have already invested in their own wayfinding. To make this project successful, a lot of work is needed to understand how a coordinated system of information can meet the needs of all the groups who have an interest while providing the simple, accessible and affordable system that users need to make walking a choice.

A pedestrian reading a map
Legible London map
Translink Vancouver (left) and Legible London (right) have set the standard for transportation and pedestrian wayfinding systems, respectively.