A Digital Map for Walking Across London

Footways London Helps Pedestrians Navigate Offline and Online

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Jun 16, 2022

A Digital Map for Walking Across London

Footways London Helps Pedestrians Navigate Offline and Online

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Jun 16, 2022

I have been working with Footways to support their paper and digital maps that help people navigate better by foot across London. The results are fantastic, so I wanted to give the Footways team a chance to share how they approached the project. I asked Footways co-founder Emma Griffin a few questions about how the Footways maps came about.

Emma, the new Footways maps are beautiful, congrats! The coverage of great walking routes across London is impressive. Did you actually walk all of these?

Yes! David Harrison (our other co-founder), and I walked every single route, many times over. We also walked and talked with a huge range of other people and organizations. We debated the merits of different street segments, tweaked the connections, and fine-tuned the routes. I run marathons, so testing routes became a useful way to add up the miles! 

I’ve been living and walking in London for 26 years now. Every time I walk, I discover something new – a layer of local history, an unexpected view, a tempting new coffee shop, or a pub I’d somehow missed before.This is the joy of walking. I love the ancient alleys of the City, as much as the fine Bloomsbury Squares, the white terraces of Pimlico, or London’s Modernist estates. 

But it’s the connections between these notable places that I love the most - how special places and unique neighborhoods interlink. And you can only make sense of these connections on foot.  

What originally motivated you to start mapping this network?

The Footways project began as a volunteer effort for Living Streets, the UK charity that promotes everyday walking. Walking is already London’s most popular form of transport, but typically the distances walked are short. We hoped that by linking key destinations via London’s most enjoyable, interesting, and enticing streets, more people would enjoy navigating from A to B on foot and make it a habit.  We published our first edition in 2020 with Transport for London, London’s transport operator. TfL is aiming for 80 percent of all trips in London to be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport by 2041 and it sees walking as a critical part of this ambition.

This is also a campaign for better walking infrastructure - more space, less traffic, less clutter, and safer, greener urban spaces. By developing the walking network, testing it with decision-makers and residents, and boosting the numbers of people walking, we can make the case for improvements.

Footways maps are now available in all of London’s mainline rail stations. Why is walking so important to passenger railways?

Network Rail owns the UK rail network and manages 11 mainline stations in London, and they understood that passenger journeys do not begin and end at stations. To enable sustainable, low-carbon transportation we need to connect rail passengers with enjoyable and healthy walking routes. Rail is best for long-distance, low-carbon travel; and walking is the easiest, healthiest, lowest carbon and most accessible form of transport on shorter distances. They saw Footways as an opportunity to get passengers walking from stations and help make their journey more enjoyable and healthy. 

Since we launched the new print map this May, thousands of Londoners and visitors have turned up at stations asking for copies. The map helps tourists look beyond the Tube map or an expensive cab ride. Londoners are using it to break habits and to uncover new connections and London features. The map will also prove useful when there are public transport disruptions such as Tube strikes. 

Looking at how you built the new map, how did you collect and digitize the route information for all these walks?

When we walk a route, we make written notes along the way and sometimes use my fitness tracker to collect a GPS trace for the route. Next, we painstakingly trace the route, split it into line segments, and name them street by street. There are multiple tools to do this, including the Mapbox Studio dataset editor. We have used a Google My Maps map for the initial data creation because it is collaborative. Then we export the data as a KML file and upload it to Mapbox for processing into a tileset.

Mapping the routes is never done because the experience of walking in London shifts and evolves with the city. For example, during the Covid pandemic London boroughs have introduced new ‘low traffic’ neighborhoods and other schemes to make walking easier. We are constantly updating the routes to make the most of these changes.

What is important for cartography when designing a print map for navigating by foot?

We wanted the map to change how people think about navigating the city. We worked with Charlie Peel at Urban Good on the first edition of Central London Footways in 2020, and he chose to use a neon pink Pantone ink for the walking routes - so they leapt off the page. This was important, as this was the first map of London to show the city from the perspective of the pedestrian.  

The second edition takes the original design and adds an additional ink color and more labels for easier legibility. The map was designed by Applied Information Group, who created Legible London for TfL, the capital’s trusted and pioneering wayfinding system. The result is something that is both striking and unique, but also easy to use.

You also brought the Footways map online this year. What was important for the design of the interactive digital experience? 

Walkers today expect to navigate routes on their phones, but we don’t yet have the budget to create a mobile app. The ability to geolocate a walker’s position when they view a web map on mobile was a solution. 

We wanted the design of the print and digital maps to feel consistent, so we knew we needed a mapping tool that would give us full control over the cartography so we could pick out the same featured buildings and stations, and use similar colors and design. 

We were delighted (and relieved!) to connect with you and the Mapbox Community team to get help building our online map. You helped us create a fantastic custom style in Mapbox Studio, and then spent time explaining how the Mapbox style editor works so we could continue managing it ourselves. It was pretty stress free - even though we’re new to digital mapping. This kind of interaction seems rare compared to other digital mapping providers.

Building the interactive version also allowed us to create bespoke versions of featured routes with clickable markers that people can explore on the walk, like this route for Waterloo Station to the British Museum or this map for the City of London Corporation.  To connect the print and digital maps further, Josh Gage at Gage Carto helped us create a really simple way to link an individual route on the print map to the digital version using QR codes and permalinks.

Do you have any recommendations for Mapbox?

When it comes to navigation for people walking, remember that people are not machines. We rely on so many more factors and information than time or distance when choosing a route. Our challenge to Mapbox is for turn-by-turn wayfinding to use more factors beyond time and distance. Can route choice also be determined by factors such as numbers of trees, interesting buildings, air quality, how safe a street feels, how many people are on it, or the speed of traffic? It took a huge amount of time and human skills to create the Central London Footways network, it would be fascinating to see how an algorithm could model similar choices.  

Thanks for talking with me, Emma. Mapbox is working to improve our navigation products every day, and building alongside you and Footways has been informative and a rewarding opportunity  to contribute to more sustainable transportation. 

Are you building new navigation experiences? We’d love to see them - share with us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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