#162: In mobility and access technology, wayfinding weighs as much as mapping

DOHA– Hamad International Airport boasts a passenger shuttle in the form of a rail service toward gates that are further down this large scale airport. These shuttles will become even more important as airports get larger and their economies imporve. All airports have significant wayfinding investments that are complemented by the appropriate infrastructure to speed pedestrians up.

Wayfindingrefers to information systems that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space.

Society for Experiential Graphic Design

Wayfinding pretty much doesn’t exist in the way transport services are designed and regulated in the context of South Africa. Instead of signboards and street names, pedestrians navigate through space rather intuitively. Where road users have the liberty to interact with mapping services built into their vehicle experience, pivoted toward them as the drive— pedestrians have to sneak, peak and view while walking. The interface between moving through space by motorised transport and non-motorised transport is quite unique, but there is a lot to learn about space signage that the average person hasn’t experienced. 

Why wayfinding matters

Wayfinding as a term refers to finding one’s way. In children’s mobility literature, it is related to something called “spatial cognition” which is the ability to understand the space around you relatively easily. When children grow up being transported by car to every destination they tend to lack detailed insights about their routes, neighbourhood and a general sense of space or place. This is noticeable in the literature around Appleyard’s research, which purports that busy streets cut neighbourhood connections short—a smaller sense of ownership of the neighbourhood, fewer ties with neighbours and so on. However, not all households want a connection with their neighbours, and there is evidence to say that neighbourhoods are unique and barely one size fits all. Why is it then that we design local streets as if the only users of the roadway need traffic signs over signs that help improve our spatial cognition? This question interests me because, what makes most cities special is the fact that they want you to find places, see things, and find ways around. Tourism shouldn’t be about visitors, no. A tour is the whole journey we go through between leaving home, commuting, interacting with our purposes and activities and finally finding our way back. If done well, who knows what town and transport planners might find. 

Think of a shopping mall. Popular as they are in African cities, these spaces are bound to collapse into mixed residence, lifestyle and leisure places instead of giant parking lots. Most shopping malls show arrows, pointing you here, leading you there, and forcing you to remember how you got in. No matter how well you drive, or how much you’ve travelled, it’s extra important not to get lost in a mall. So what do they do? They put maps everywhere with a “YOU ARE HERE” sign, or 3D maps to help you navigate through the mall, or better yet mobile applications for you to download and find your way. Airports do this very well, and it is a key selling point for them as international travel depends on how easy it is to minimise the likelihood of missing a flight but also just being in a position where one can get around. 

Perhaps we need policies that embrace innovation, foster an entrepreneur spirit, but also protects commuters, enhances operator’s services and protects or liberates the market where appropriate.”

O H Mokwena

TSHWANE- 3D map at Menlyn Shopping Centre, does magic for this massive shopping centre. Blaring through a touchscreen, it may be slow to respond at times, but it certainly helps.

Mobility applications and services for finding one’s way

This set of design principles is concerned making information spaces effectively navigable. Navigability means that the navigator can successfully move in the information space from his present location to a destination, even if the location of the destination is imprecisely known. Three criteria determine the navigability of a space: first, whether the navigator can discover or infer his present location; second, whether a route to the destination can be found; and third, how well the navigator can accumulate wayfinding experience in the space.

Mark Foltz, MSc Thesis

This is exactly what made WhereIsMyTransport such a fascinating company in their early days with the FindMyWay App. The app hosted almost all bus schedules in the country, it was an incredible resource. But schedules are like roadsigns: they tell you the time, and destination as if it is distance and directions on a highway. What human beings need is spatial cognition, and that’s how the company eventually moved towards mapping public transport services that have never been mapped before. Another example is Moving Gauteng which is by and large a dynamic platform for both communicating with commuters, but it also provides realtime travel information for public transportation services. This is a giant realtime map with a chatroom and customer support built into it. Here we go beyond spatial cognition, but the relationship and feedback associated with this cognition— which supports trip planning and fosters a different type of wayfinding.

The last two examples re quite unique. First is GoMetroPro which is a dynamic company which focuses on mobility and access data collection solutions that will in the near future underpin much of the transport and service planning around the world. One of their solutions enables data collection via a mobile app for the number of passengers, carbon emissions, and accessibility indices all in one. Second is OpenRobot which is an app solution built to integrate intelligent transport systems with a mobile application that helps all road users feed into the traffic light network. For instance, recommending a certain speed in order to stay in the green-light for the entire journey; or prioritising people with disabilities at intersections by green-lighting them if they have the app. 

FRANCE- Charles de Gaulle Airport boasts an interesting rail shuttle complemented by a detailed network of signs that lead you to the train toward Paris, and beyond. The signage is intuitive and quite simple to grasp as it is consitent with international best practice in terms of the language of finding one’s way around.

Regulating wayfinding beyond the technology

At a regulatory level, there are a number of technical characteristics across all these applications and services that are worth delving into much deeper. This is something you will see in future work. However, my concern is the extent to which the transportation policies in South Africa are truly geared up for all the applications and digital services already on the ground in the context of passenger transport. Furthermore, it’s not just about the mobile apps because driving, walking or cycling with smartphone can be distracting. There is value to treating local residents as if they were tourists, constantly trying to find new places and a sense of direction— therefore planning and designing with the same spirit. 

PARIS- There’s something about handing a map to each bus stop, or popular taxi stop, that makes finding one’s way a pleasure. In Paris, a 5 minute radius’ worth of activities and locations is attached to a bus stop. Moving it beyond just being for the bus, to serving those who parked on the otherside of town too.

Perhaps we need policies that embrace innovation, foster an entrepreneur spirit, but also protects commuters, enhances operator’s services and protects or liberates the market where appropriate. Somewhere between innovation and disruption there is a bulk of infrastructure, services and systems that precede the user interface— this is where active policy lives. Inaction at a policy level in this regard reveals a much deeper problem: if policies are made for the sake of reactive law over progressive development then there is a natural lag hidden in the specific nature of policy ambiguity. The broad language used in some policies in SA, is actually quite procedural as it focuses on definitions and administration; over being substantive  which would imply that they focus on action and practice. Could it be that most of the mobility and access applications and technology services emerging in Africa will go global before policy makers in the responsible countries actually change in the face of this? Finding ways to narrate unique policy spaces will most certainly add new types of value and build crucial intellectual, service and industrial industries: wether we’re ready or not. 

*Thank you

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s