DOT Unveils WalkNYC Wayfinding System, Set to Go Citywide Next Year

The new WalkNYC sign at Mulberry and Worth in Chinatown. Photo: Stephen Miller

The Manhattan grid is simple enough to navigate, but throughout the city, it’s still easy for tourists and locals alike to get turned around. To help people find their way on foot, the the city is launching WalkNYC, its new pedestrian wayfinding initiative. This afternoon, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan kicked off the program at a newly-installed sign at the corner of Mulberry and Worth in Chinatown.

“The term wayfinding may sound a bit wonky, but the concept behind WalkNYC is very simple,” she said. “We have a great system of signage for cars, but we don’t have a great system of signage for people on foot.”

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, joining Sadik-Khan, emphasized the economic value of walking, noting that encouraging people to walk short distances makes them more likely to spend money in the shops and restaurants along the way.

According to DOT, 22 percent of car trips in NYC are less than a mile, an ideal distance for walking, and 30 percent of all trips in the city are already made on foot. Meanwhile, a DOT survey of pedestrians revealed that one in ten New Yorkers said they had gotten lost in the past week, and one in three didn’t know which way was north.

Traditionally, the top of a map is north, but WalkNYC uses what’s known as “heads-up” mapping, where the top of the map is the same direction the map is facing, helping people orient themselves more quickly. While each sign will be about 8.5 feet tall, they will vary between 18, 34, and 50 inches wide. Like bus shelters and bike-share stations, the WalkNYC wayfinding signs have been approved by the Public Design Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission for citywide implementation.

As of today, four signs have been installed in Chinatown — the first was put in early last Friday morning — and the city is set to have 100 signs this summer in Chinatown, the Garment District, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and Long Island City. In addition, DOT aims to cover Manhattan south of Houston Street this fall and expand the program to neighborhoods across the city next year.

The agency is positioning WalkNYC to become the citywide standard for pedestrian wayfinding. “Now we’ll have one consistent map for everybody to look to when they’re trying to get around,” Sadik-Khan said, noting that the maps have already been installed on most bike-share stations. The MTA is also in on the project: The WalkNYC template will be the new standard for station-area maps near subway turnstiles as they are replaced over time, and DOT will be installing the signage along all Select Bus Service routes, starting with 34th Street and Nostrand Avenue. These signs could also include bus arrival information from Bus Time, the MTA’s real-time vehicle tracking system.

The design relies heavily on the Helvetica typeface and black background that have become hallmarks of the subway system since their introduction in the 1960s. “Our designers were great, and they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” said DOT Assistant Commissioner for Urban Design and Art Wendy Feuer.

WalkNYC shares many similarities with Legible London, a wayfinding system launched by Transport for London in 2007, including the “heads-up” mapping technique. Sadik-Khan noted that some of the design team from London is also working on WalkNYC. The project team, selected after an RFP was issued in 2011, consists of wayfinding experts City ID, industrial designers Billings Jackson Design, graphic designers Pentagram, cartographers T-Kartor, and engineers and urban designers from the RBA Group.

The designers will complete a citywide WalkNYC map by early next year, allowing DOT to cut pieces from the larger map as necessary for individual installations. The agency will also be opening the underlying GIS data to developers, allowing for third-party mobile and web applications. DOT has issued a new contract for upkeep of the signs, and is also working with partners such as business improvement districts to maintain them. The program design and initial rollout costs $6 million, 80 percent of which is covered by federal transportation dollars, with the remaining 20 percent split by the city and its BID partners. Sadik-Khan said that the signs will not carry advertising or sponsorship to defray costs.

  • 1. Do Pentagram and NYCDOT have an open agreement for contracts, or do they win RFPs each time? They do a lot of work, and it’s all really good, so I’m just curious how they’re involved so often. Please keep in mind that I’m from Chicago so this kind of behavior often indicates a kind of corruption…

    2. These look like the Citibike maps, right?

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry but isn’t this what paper maps and smartphones are for?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the are specifically made to be the same as Citibike maps. Since each station has a map, DOT will likely not install new wayfinding maps near Citibike stations.

    That’s what a little birdie told me.

  • Jeremi Czarnecki

    We have had such maps as parts of our Municipal Information System in our city for some time now, and I can tell you, they work really well for locals and tourists alike, despite smartphones and paper maps being widely available.

    Recently I was even showing this to a very accomplished professor of urbanism and he was very complimentary.

  • Hell yeah

    Pentagram was part of a consortium that won an RFP for a city-wide system.

    The citi bike maps are the wayfinding maps, although slightly stripped down.

  • Thanks. I know they also did the LOOK taxi decal (which I much prefer to Chicago’s).

  • P B

    I guess no more cute tourists asking for directions 🙁

  • dude seriously

    wayfinding friggin rules

  • dude seriously

    wayfinding friggin rules

  • tyler

    Umm… not everyone has a smartphone (including ME and lots of folks from overseas that can’t connect to the U.S. networks — or want to pay for it.) And paper maps don’t tell you what direction you’re facing or how long it would take to walk somewhere, etc. etc. etc. etc. In short, stop being so negative and understand the rest of the world isn’t just a copy of you.

  • tyler

    Umm… not everyone has a smartphone (including ME and lots of folks from overseas that can’t connect to the U.S. networks — or want to pay for it.) And paper maps don’t tell you what direction you’re facing or how long it would take to walk somewhere, etc. etc. etc. etc. In short, stop being so negative and understand the rest of the world isn’t just a copy of you.

  • tyler

    And don’t worry — no one is making you use them.

  • Joe R.

    They should also include the locations of public restrooms. This is very important for both tourists, as well as anyone looking to spend more than a few hours roaming the streets.

  • Mark Walker

    Important for older people too!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, angry much?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know about you, but many people seem to think that just because they have a smartphone and all their friends have a smartphone, then everybody has a smartphone. In reality, only about half of cell phone users in the US have smartphones.

    That’s the “everybody is like me” bias that everyone has to some degree, consciously or not. I know everybody has it because I have it. 😉

  • Joe R.

    I don’t even have a cell phone, much less a smart phone.

  • Anonymous

    You raise a very good point! We tend to forget that not every one is wired in.

  • Bronxite

    Yes citywide please! I hate how the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan are often left out (or limited) when it come to these projects. I would love to see a good density of signs across the 5 boroughs.

  • Keira

    While the point is taken that not everyone is wired it would be interesting to see a cost comparison between the design (Pentagram isn’t cheap), installation and maintenance required for WalkNYC maps vs investment in city wide WiFi (which is coming sooner or later anyway, the faster the better) and providing lo-res B&W e-ink devices to tourists so they can access the already amazing Google maps, or use their own devices to connect free to “CitiFi” (I digress, but if this trend continues it might someday be called New York Citi). Looking at a handheld device which tells you exactly where you are beats out a static map with or without “heads-up” mapping, anytime.

  • Andy

    I found these street maps really useful today – As a tourist, I don’t want to use my mobile and pay vast sums in roaming charges – On-street direction-of-travel mapping is a great help when on foot or citibike … Which I also found fantastic – New York is a great city to ride around …

  • Danger

    This is definitley more useful downtown where it isn’t an exact grid system, and where it isn’t easy to tell which direction you’re going because the streets are named instead of numbered.

  • Anonymous

    We’ve had something like this in London for at least a couple of years now. I love them. It’s so much easier to walk up to a map that’s lined up with your direction – rather than getting out your mobile phone, putting in your pin code, opening up maps, touching the button to locate you on the map, deciding whether the map has been disorientated by the tall buildings around you, pinching to zoom in, waiting for the map to reload and then losing focus of where your intended destination is.

    May they continue to spread across the country like a rash.

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