Maps for the North Challenged Coming to New York City

Caitlin Dempsey


A survey of 500 participants by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) found that one in three New Yorkers can not identify which direction is north in their city.  The survey also found that at any given moment, one in ten is lost.  

Sadly, this confusion in spatial orientation and lack of map reading skills is nothing new.  

To combat confusion, the DOT has launched WalkNYC which will start installing maps this summer to provide pedestrians with signs that show maps which have been rotated to be “heads-up” or forward-facing.  This means that the orientation of the map is identical to the view down the street that the viewer is facing.  

The top of the map, instead of being the traditional north, will be the direction the map is facing.    The DOT notes that “Research and user testing demonstrate that this method is more accessible for people who are unfamiliar with their surroundings or have trouble reading maps.

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NYC DOT further explains:

New York City is well-known as a walking city, but pedestrian-oriented information is difficult to find and inconsistent where available. The City’s streets are a mix of named and numbered streets, with a variety of building numbering conventions, with street grids merging at confusing angles. Even Manhattan’s simple street grid is difficult to navigate when emerging from a subway station or transit hub.

While the City has many signs directing drivers these provide very little benefit to pedestrians. The goal of WalkNYC is to remedy this information and navigation gap.

The network of pedestrian maps will cost a total of $6 million dollars with each sign costing $15,000.  The source of the funding is mostly from federal sources.  In adding to providing basic street name information, the maps will also contain information about subway entrances, WIFI hotspots, and walking distances to local areas of interest.

The first maps will be installed in four areas:

  • Chinatown
  • Long Island City
  • Herald Square and the Garment District
  • Prospect Heights and Crown Heights

The wayfinding maps are already installed at many of the city’s bike share dock locations.  By the end of next summer, an additional 100 maps will be installed in various locations around the city.  

The GIS data will be opened up to developers to allow for the development of mobile and web-based applications.

New York City’s pedestrian wayfinding system is similar to Legible London, a pedestrian mapping system launched by London officials in 2007.

Walk NYC map.  Photo: NYC DOT.
Walk NYC map. Photo: NYC DOT.
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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.