This City Wayfinding blog consistently points to the benefits of excellent city wayfinding mapping. We have shown how maps can be used to encourage exploration on foot, increase connectivity and raise awareness of sustainable travel options, including walking and cycling. But how important is the system behind the maps?

In order to encourage walking, a city wayfinding basemap is designed to show details which entice people into exploring an area on foot. Care is taken to develop a user’s mental map of key landmarks in the surrounding area. The same carefully designed basemap is then used to simplify travel options, adapting it to each mode of transport and presenting the information in the place where it is needed most. As illustrated below, this includes:

  • Adding bus route information to the map and placing maps at bus stops
  • Clearly presenting onward travel options for people arriving at a station terminus
  • Displaying maps of a different format to suit longer distance journeys along a cycle path
  • Adding digital layers of information, such as tourist information, which react to user stimulus on interactive displays

This varied use of consistent mapping requires a robust system with a seamless basemap at its core.


Creating a system around this basemap is important. A system, according to Wikipedia, is a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming an integrated whole.

In a system, dependable rules and routines can be designed that provide consistent, accurate results. Interdependent components of a city wayfinding system include:

  • Map layers made up of different types of data
  • Design guidelines for the map, information signs and branding elements
  • A set of information signage types
  • Data about how and where people will use the information to get around
  • A wayfinding strategy to decide sign positions
  • Strategy objecives based on an overall vision for mobility

Building trust in the system

The city wayfinding system becomes the city’s own reliable brand of information, and a way of communicating with citizens and visitors. However, inaccuracy or outdated mapping soon erodes confidence and would reflect badly on the authority.

To avoid this, a seamless basemap of the whole city must be developed and stored as a Master from which all other maps are created throughout the lifetime of the system. Routines must be put in place for gathering feedback from local experts and tracking updates as they are made to the basemap. The system should make it possible to trace any changes from when the decision was made, who approved it and how many separate map assets are affected.

It is important that a wayfinding system is seen as constantly evolving and increasing in value, rather than a one-off investment.


A flexible system

In order to create a multi-use range of wayfinding signage across the city, the system must be advanced in the following ways:

Pedestrian totems


A range of pedestrian totems of various formats are displayed at different decision points, from a large, comprehensive map sign at a railway terminus to slim roadside totems serving as reassurance en route. Two maps, one overview and one detailed, must be maintained with links between them for consistency.

Cycle mapping


Maps for cycling are often produced at a different scale or format in order to display a longer journey. Specific cycling data may be added in unique layers and maintained separately. These layers include cycle routes,  repair shops and cycle infrastructure (such as cycle parking).

Printed maps


Folded paper maps are a great complement to city wayfinding signage and can be carried around by visitors. While still produced from the Master basemap, these maps are produced at a smaller scale to cover a large extent of the city. Again, specific information will be added over the pedestrian base, such as shopping or tourist information.

Event mapping


Bespoke maps are often required from the system e.g. for large sporting events or temporary tourist attractions. A versatile system will be able to add specific information, new design features or unusual formats which support the event without compromising ‘business as usual’ information.

Digital maps


There are many opportunities for extending the system with a digital mapping source e.g. for interactive touch screens or mobile apps. The same Master basemap must be used to create these sources as people expect digital mapping to be the most up-to-date. Digital maps require a separate infrastructure for contiuous online service and support.


A system can grow in stages

The major city wayfinding systems across the world have evolved in stages. This is inevitable for several reasons:

  • It is wise to begin with pilot areas in order to test public reaction
  • Early success of the system will encourage expansion and new user requirements
  • Funding often becomes availiable incrementally

Staged growth requires a flexible system which can be extended by geographical area (consecutive or separate), data layers or new design features. This is particularly difficult for a basemap created as a single file, so a GIS database is often the only way to support a large wayfinding system.


Asset management

Finally, a comprehensive range of information assets have been created across the city, serving pedestrians, cyclists and passengers of public transport. The wayfinding system must now manage these assets, tracking their position, content, installation and latest update. The system must link assets to the Master basemap so that public facing signs can be updated to reflect changes as soon as possible. This will ensure that features on the map at a bus stop will not contradict another version of the same map at a nearby cycle hire docking station.


A system of increasing value

A robust city wayfinding system will provide locals and visitors with an unprecedented amount of knowledge about their surroundings. Information simplifying travel options will be placed just where it is needed most. Maps of the local area will encourage people to walk or cycle.

As the well maintained system evolves it will increase in value, and as more wayfinding signs are introduced, more people will begin to rely on them. The maps will provide updated information based on peoples needs at that moment, which will persuasively encourage behavioural change.


Follow our coverage of the world of City Wayfinding...