Wayfinding totem in Birmingham

When Birmingham rebuilt its town centre for the 2011 Midland Metro tram extension, wayfinding signs would be essential information to connect the stations, tram stops and bus interchanges. Gathering important stakeholders around his growing vision, Rafael Cuesta forged ahead before a complete budget or a final plan was in place. The result was Interconnect Birmingham – one of the world’s most thoroughly designed City Wayfinding Systems.

Interconnect describes itself as a vision for connecting people’s journeys, improving the quality of information across all transport services and walking environments. It is heavily focussed on users, appreciating that people move differently through a city and therefore have different information needs. Users range from first time visitors to locals, time-rich to time-poor. Their journeys may be to a single destination, cross-city or simply meandering around in exploration.

Birmingham wayfinding information

The wayfinding vision taking shape featured a beautifully designed basemap at the core, with layers of information added to create maps for specific purposes, including a shopping map, tourist visitor map and detailed bus stop information. Around this was built a versatile system which could expand in stages as funding becomes available. Maps would be the main outputs from the system, including 110 pavement ‘totems’ for walking, 70 bus stop information panels, special purpose paper maps and a digital version for interactive displays and mobile apps.

According to Rafael Cuesta, then Head of Development at Centro, Birmingham, Interconnect was only possible thanks to a large collaboration of stakeholders and multiple funding streams. The infrastructure development around the new Metro line had allocated circa £120,000 for improvements to the pedestrian area. Unfortunately Rafael had loosely budgeted for £3 million! The key was to gather funding from a number of streams and build enthusiasm and momentum among local businesses.

  • Rafael Cuesta has a large international contact network and is involved in several EU-funded projects. He secured EU funding from the UITP ’Nodes’ project for improving urban transport integration; ‘Involve’ project to promote cooperation between local and regional authories and the private sector; and significant funding from the European Regional Development Fund for infrastructure provision.
  • The Birmingham extension of the Midland Metro tram line supplied circa £1.5 million
  • Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in UK cities draw a tax on local businesses to fund local services such as pedestrian and streetscape enhancements. Budgets are often in the £ millions. These vital stakeholders in Interconnect Birmingham included Colemore Row, Broad Street, Jewellery Quarter, Southside and Retail Birmingham.
  • Birmingham City Council were engaged in the form of its strategic marketing partnership, Marketing Birmingham, who co-managed the initiative with Centro (now Transport for the West Midlands).

Rafael Cuesta cleverly created a strong partner collaboration from the outset. BIDs were keen to be involved, recognising the retail benefits of investing in local information for pedestrians while making the streetscape more pleasant. Public consultations, focus groups and disability groups were used to gain the support of the public, and a viewing room was set up at a local train station. Everyone’s input was welcome, and as a result everyone invoved was enthusiastic about the project. Today stakeholder workshops are still held regularly to ensure that the value of the basemap is maintained and that on-street maps remain accurate.

Interconnect Birmingham shopping map

The result of this careful attention to detail is that with the endorsement of the BIDs, the system spread like wildfire to become a showcase for other cities. Rafael Cuesta proudly hosted representatives from New York City, Moscow and several European cities keen to be inspired into creating similar wayfinding systems.

Rafael Cuesta is keen to share his advice for any cities who are planning to embark on a wayfinding system of their own:

  1. Work with partners and local businesses to ensure funding streams.
  2. It is worth investing lots of time and effort to create a clear vision and use it to ensure the buy-in of everyone involved. This way you will create support along the way, and minimise resistance.
  3. Be careful not to take shortcuts with user testing. Include sufficient time and milestones for these activities in the project plan. Time and money invested in thorough user testing ensure early success and save significant effort later on.

Presently working for Transport for Greater Manchester, Rafael Cuesta is establishing a city wayfinding system to improve walkability in that city. He is also head of a Smart City initiative which will innovate the way people move, using Mobility as a Service (MaaS), driverless vehicles and intelligent mobility. In an increasingly digital future, I was curious if there will still be a role for physical map signs and a well designed wayfinding basemap.

“Cartographic craftsmanship cannot be replicated digitally. It is an art. Digital solutions inevitably compromise this craftmanship.

Wayfinding is about assurance, and for that both digital and analogue information are needed together. A look at customer market research shows that some want signs, some want printed maps, some want digital. You have to satisfy as many customers as you can”

says Rafael Cuesta.


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