By Khushal Wadhawan, Sowmya V, Malavika Menon, Sudhamshu Hosamane
The ‘Silicon Valley of India’, Bengaluru, with its sprawling tech parks, leafy gardens and metropolitan culture has a lot to offer to tourists, job-seekers and natives alike. However, their experience in the city is often marred by infamous traffic jams and broken footpaths. The traffic jams in Bengaluru, which the city’s residents have come to woefully accept, are primarily a result of poor uptake of public transport.
According to a SmartNet Report, one of the reasons for the declining mode share of buses in Indian cities is that passengers do not have enough information on bus operations including bus routes, stops and expected arrival times. This is also true for Bengaluru which has been witnessing an increasing influx of migrant population who may not necessarily have the relevant knowledge about the public transport system, specifically the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) network that runs through the city.
To address this information gap, it is pertinent that cities have robust infrastructure to display both static and dynamic information. While static information refers to details on nearby bus stations, bus schedules, fare details and nearby points of interest, dynamic information, refers to real-time information for users.
Unfortunately, Bengaluru has yawning gaps on both fronts. Lack of well-defined guidelines on signage systems means that most bus-stops do not have adequate signboards or information around the routes served and the schedules of buses. The myBMTC app, which aims to provide citizens with access to dynamic information, has very limited information on the various buses on each route and real-time tracking is mostly absent. In contrast, most countries that have excellent Public Transport systems have well-designed signage and wayfinding systems in place.
To discuss the importance of wayfinding systems for a city like Bengaluru, we spoke to Sensing Local, an ‘Urban Living Lab’ with a focus on developing solutions for sustainable urban development, on their experience with wayfinding projects in the city.
Q: Most Indian tourists who visit Europe are in awe of the information available publicly through their wayfinding systems. Do you think there’s been a lack of interest among the public and the government in building basic infrastructure around the same here in India?
Sensing Local (SL): In India, basic physical infrastructure like good roads and footpaths remain inadequate to meet the needs of our urban population. In such conditions, wayfinding systems are perceived to be secondary. However, in the last few years, there has been a slow shift towards understanding the need for such signage, especially in metro stations and NMT lanes. However, there’s a long way to go for those in power to understand that providing better information directly impacts better utilisation of existing public infrastructure.
Q: What motivated Sensing Local to take up wayfinding projects, and what are the gaps you have tried to fix through your work in Bengaluru?
SL: Our first signage project was in collaboration with I-Change Indiranagar, a Resident community in Indiranagar. The community conceived it as a small system of neighbourhood signage in and around the Metro station, to aid overall navigation, increase walkability and use of public transport, as well as to create a unified map of the surroundings.
We started the project with an audit of the existing signage and found problems in the coherence of the neighbourhood itself—the grid system is not logical, road names are missing, new roads have been added, and original names have been forgotten. This makes navigation extremely cumbersome. Our interactions with the residents brought out a lot of these common problems faced by delivery, courier services and visitors in the locality. It also brought out the need to restore the identity of public spaces like parks, grounds etc. in their communities. Signage was a great way to reinforce the presence of these places.
Even in our Cubbon Park or KR market signage projects, we are attempting to enable decision-makers to plan the future of these significant landmarks. We hope to bring out the value of these places, which proves they’re worth conservation and investment. For example, the Cubbon Park map shows 35 layers of data in the wayfinding system including biodiversity, physical geography, road system and community activities enabled by it which makes it much more important than just green space with trees. Similarly, even for bus stops, the neighbourhood around the stop becomes important. Thus, as planners, signage provides a way for embedding information and value for the users of the everyday place they inhabit.
Q: Having worked on numerous wayfinding projects, have you noticed any persistent barriers in implementing such projects?
SL: One of our projects, the KR Market signage project has taken four years to start, and the Indiranagar Neighbourhood Signage project did not come to fruition even with complete community buy-in. The main barrier continues to be making the key stakeholders, including civic bodies, understand the value of such projects and see them through for successful implementation.
Q: Could you take us through an example of a successful wayfinding project and the timelines associated with it? Have you observed any visible impact?
SL: The Cubbon Park Information and Way-finding Signage project was proposed in August 2016, but the implementation started only in October 2017, and it was finally unveiled in April 2019. This was initially conceived as a 4-month project but creating a coherent signage system took almost 1.5 years.
Its success lies in the fact that each time we visit Cubbon Park now, we’re thrilled to see people looking at the maps. The biggest win for us is that the maps tend to make the place more visitor-friendly and many have written back to us saying that the signages now represent the image of the park and help them explore hitherto unknown aspects of Cubbon Park.
Q: How important is physical signage in an increasingly digital world?
SL: This is a crucial point that we keep going back to. In our opinion, it goes back to the users. Digital signage is experientially different from analog. It’s expensive in terms of the need for a responsive IT system at the backend and while our governments try to get these in place, there’s a lack of any kind of wayfinding system in place! While physical signage requires more real estate, it is faster and most importantly, accessible to all. So, an understanding of these constraints of cost, the real estate available, nature of information, vandalism, etc., should determine the choice of the signage.
Q: Some of the cities which are best known for their public transportation, such as London, also have state of the art wayfinding systems. As we conclude this interview, could you share with us your opinion on whether public infrastructure development and wayfinding systems should go hand in hand here in Indian cities as well?
SL: Yes, definitely! Any transport system would be effective only if commuters can reliably know the schedules and routes that they need to choose! For example, in Mumbai local trains, you can be rest assured that the timing displayed on the platform is accurate, and that’s what makes it successful. This is true for any successful public transport system.
By creating integrated, consistent and intelligently built pathfinding systems that ultimately contain information that is well-integrated into the context of the citizens, public/non-motorized transport can be developed as a real alternative to private transport. By providing integrated information, inter-modality can also be supported. With the support of state urban planning bodies and zealous citizens, we can together help Namma Bengaluru find its way to public transport!
Note: This interview was held as part of the work done under the Mobility Champions Program at YLAC, in connection with the #BengaluruMoving campaign to help reduce vehicular emissions and congestion in Bengaluru. The Mobility Champions’ aim was to bring out the need for well-designed public information and wayfinding systems across the city to make urban transportation a seamless experience for long-time residents and tourists alike. Their thought paper on wayfinding systems is available here.