Wayfinding in Edmonton inches forward

At Executive Committee today, Councillors discussed a report which outlined why wayfinding is important, a strategy for moving it forward, and initial implementation options and costs.

Edmonton has very little wayfinding information for citizens or tourists and what we do have is confusing and lacks consistency. It has become clear that our city’s haphazard implementation of wayfinding within the pedway system is a disaster and is a mistake we should not repeat. The City’s push to see Edmontonians shift transportation modes is another big reason to support this initiative – finding your way around can be difficult if you’re not in a car. As Edmonton grows and attracts both more residents and visitors, the problem is only going to get worse. And like most things, the longer we wait to do the work required, the more it’ll probably cost.

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The good news is that the City seems committed to doing something with wayfinding in a coordinated, strategic way. Administration understands and has articulated the benefits of wayfinding. The risk is that the funding to do it right may not be available.

Here’s an audio overview of today’s meeting & news:

You can download the cloudcast here.

Hooray for citizen action!

Would the City have come around to this position without citizen action? Perhaps eventually. But without question, the work of the Edmonton Wayfinding Project has had a significant impact. They’ve engaged citizens, they’ve conducted surveys and have done some other public engagement work, they have connected with experts in other cities, and they have pushed for collaboration with City Administration. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve shone the light on a topic that could have easily been ignored, and for no reason other than they want to make Edmonton a better place to live and visit.

The founder of the project, Tim Querengesser, was at Council today to speak to the report and to make his group’s case for the importance of progressing this work. The group published a discussion document today as well, which concluded:

“The Edmonton Wayfinding Society recommends City Council support the reports it is examining and follow their recommendations, with one caveat. The Society recommends the City reconfigure the roadmap toward a unifying wayfinding system for Edmonton to include the pedway/LRT system. Further, the Society recommends that its volunteer-driven research suggests a comprehensive study of pedway users, attitudes and behaviours is badly needed to create a wayfinding system that works in all nodes of Edmonton’s transportation infrastructure. In the interim, the Society also recommends that Edmonton introduce, immediately, guidelines for all new developments that add wayfinding as a factor that is examined. “

Be sure to follow @WayfindYEG on Twitter for updates.

Concern about costs

Today’s report included both a business case and a detailed strategy. The two hefty documents (a combined 97 pages) provide all of the necessary background and detail that you could hope for. The opening paragraph of the business case highlights one of the big problems with wayfinding efforts in Edmonton in the past:

“There have been several attempts to create a corporate wayfinding program in the City of Edmonton which have failed at the value for money decision. While it is understood generally that wayfinding offers many benefits to a growing city, it has not so far obtained support as a priority for the investment needed for citywide implementation.”

Cost dominated much of the discussion today too. Councillor Oshry in particular peppered Administration with questions about the cost of implementation, and argued after the meeting that we don’t need “the Buckingham Palace version of the signs.” He told the Sun that the proposed wayfinding strategy “seems excessive”. Mayor Iveson, however, said “to cheap out on these signs is probably a mistake.”

The overall cost of implementing the wayfinding strategy is estimated at around $10 million. That includes the development of signs, apps, plans, artwork, and more. It also includes the rollout of hundreds of physical signs. A big chunk of that cost, $5.5 million, is for the installation of maps at each existing LRT or transit station. Options for funding the project include: direct funding, which Council would need to approve; incremental funding, which would mean signs only appear as projects are completed; and revenue generation, which could be from sponsorship or advertising. Rollout options were also discussed, such as focused on downtown first and other areas later.

The business case concludes that “a pedestran-focused wayfinding system in Edmonton offers a positive benefit to cost proposition” and that “wayfinding has been shown to be a cost-effective means to overcome barriers to modal shift, a way to improve the local economy and a contributor to overall city liveability.”

Design standards

A lot of design work has already been done, which you can see in the report but also in the prototype signs that were installed around Churchill Square back in April. Future signs will include both “Walk Edmonton” and the City of Edmonton brand, and they’ll likely look a bit different than the prototype signs based on feedback and other lessons.

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Icons are meant to be based on national or international standards, to ensure widespread recognition. The Benton Sans typeface is proposed for use across maps and signs, because it has good legibility at both large and small sizes, comes in a wide range of weights, and is a little more unique than Helvetica or other commonly used typfaces.

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Consideration has already been given to colors, themes, cartographic elements (like the “you are here” markers), 3D landmarks, and incorporating the pedway.

Governance and maintenance

There was some discussion today about the need for a wayfinding czar, or as the detailed strategy calls the position, a “Wayfinding System Manager”. Harry Finnigan, who worked on wayfinding in Winnipeg and who spoke at Council today, said he wished they had implemented a similar position in Winnipeg. Ultimately though, Administration today decided they would rather have a team of people take responsibility for wayfinding, and Council didn’t push the point.

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On the topic of maintenance and operations, the strategy identifies the importance of both a procurement strategy to efficiently buy and maintain signage, and an asset management database, to record information about each sign. That database of information is sorely lacking from the pedway system currently, and would certainly be important to have going forward.

The wayfinding strategy will be managed by Walkable Edmonton, under the Walk Edmonton brand. ETS and Great Neighbourhoods are the two main internal partners. Mayor Iveson also suggested that the Edmonton Design Committee be involved.

What’s next?

To some degree, the City is going to move ahead with its efforts to develop the corporate wayfinding program. At some point however, more funding will be required. There are four capital profiles being recommended for funding in the proposed 2015-2018 Capital Budget, which is when we’ll likely hear about wayfinding next. If those four profiles were funded, that would enable the City to complete roughly 60% of the wayfinding strategy.

That means Edmontonians need to keep pushing for wayfinding if they think it is important! Tell your Councillor if you want to see more funding go into this important project.

For more on wayfinding, check out the City of Edmonton’s website here and the Edmonton Wayfinding Project here.