I recently returned from a visit to New York. The numerical street/avenue system seemed to make navigation very easy, but it is important not to make mistakes over the numbers (I almost confused 145th with 45th Street – they are miles apart!) and you always need two numbers to make a grid reference. In London, you need to remember more names, but usually only one number. I would never try to find somewhere in London with just a street name and a number – I always want to know the area. This seems to make navigation harder, but once you have the area right, you won’t be that far away, even if you get the street name and number wrong, whereas the temptation to rely on numbers rather than area names in New York means you have effectively no error-recovery mechanism.

I personally find it easier to remember names than numbers (maybe Americans are better at numbers), and I navigate London by remembering nearest tube station names. I found subway stations in New York trickier, as so many have what to me are not very memorable names – “8th Street” just doesn’t seem to stick in the same way that “Colindale” or “South Acton” do. If I’ve lost the recall, recognition of numbers is also difficult. I might recognise “Colindale” as being the right shape or sound of word, but if I’ve forgotten 8th, being shown it among 6th, 10th, and 12th doesn’t help. So although New York at first seemed far easier to navigate than London, I still felt I had to work quite hard to build a mental map. It would be interesting to know if one system really is more user-friendly, or if you just get used to either in time.

I suspect that I just prefer the London system because that is what I am used to, and I would sitll prefer it, even if it was demonstrably less efficient than the numerical system – a good illusration of why change management is so difficult. Even if you introduce a simpler and more efficient system, people yearn for the old familiar one with all its complexities and peculiarities.

I had a look to see what studies on urban navigation are out there, but instead happened on this rather charming public art project:
Wooster Collective: Urban Flora – A Taxonomy Of The City.