Olympic countdown - Reasons for a London Cycle Map, #1. The Compass Colours System.

#1. THE COMPASS COLOURS SYSTEM. It has been a pleasure to run through these 100 reasons for a London Cycle Map. Thank you to all those people who have helped us to spread the word. I have chosen to finish the countdown with the most important reason of all. It is the deepest reason, and that means it requires the most effort to grasp. The bottom line is, Parker’s map is not just any old map. It features a groundbreaking design which shows an ingenious way to transform the leaden awkwardness of London’s current cycle network into a golden ticket for mass cycling in the capital. I urge the authorities to take note: let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Parker's map is based on his 'Compass Colours System', an ingenious solution to the problem of mapping and signing a huge tangle of cycle routes economically and simply. Most (but not all) of the routes on Parker’s London Cycle Map are part of the London Cycle Network (LCN), a set of advisory cycle routes developed over several decades. To appreciate the brilliance of Parker's solution, it helps to contrast it with some alternative ways of mapping the LCN.

The most obvious alternative is to number all of the 80(ish) LCN routes individually. With a route-numbering system like this you'd have to remember all the numbers of the routes for your cycle journey, and change from one to the other where appropriate. One problem with this option is that for many cycle journeys in a big city like London there would be a lot of route numbers to remember. But most importantly, representing hundreds of numbered routes on a single map looks cumbersome – the network still looks tangled, as you can see from this map.

An alternative would be to number the locations where the routes cross each other, at points called 'nodes' – as in the node-based system in Flanders, Belgium. Again, however, in a big city like London you'd have to remember lots of nodes to get from one place to the other (up to 20 for a journey of seven miles), and hundreds of numbered nodes would make the map look cluttered, and hardly less tangled. There’s also something arbitrary about nodes: they’re just isolated points, therefore less informative than proper routes.

The problem shared by these route-numbering and node-based systems is that neither numbered routes nor numbered nodes are as user-friendly as colours. One of the great things about catching the Tube in London is that the coloured lines are a simple and compelling way of presenting journey information visually. This is true of both the Tube map and the signage on the Tube network. On the map, following a coloured line with your mind's eye makes it easy to trace the route you intend to pursue. And, likewise, on the actual Tube network the coloured signs make it easy to work out where you're going, because you can clearly see the markers you’re looking for amidst the numerous other distractions you encounter in a busy underground station.

So the logical option would be to use 80 colours to mark all the routes on a London Cycle Map, right? Not quite. The problem is, there aren't 80 colours that the human eye can distinguish easily. The Tube map contains about the maximum viable number – and even then it uses graphics as 'colours' for some lines, such as the Docklands Light Railway.

Parker's system is ingenious because it divides 80 routes into a manageable number of colours. Five colours, to be precise. How on earth is this possible?

Well, Parker’s first trick is to derive the fewest possible routes from the 80 shorter ones which form the 'raw material' of his London Cycle Map. The simplest way to do this is to turn two or more routes into one, wherever possible. This gives you a smaller set of longer routes. Parker's system creates about forty longer routes in this way.

This yields a simpler map than before, but forty is still too many for each of the routes to be given its own easily distinguishable colour, as on the Tube map. With London being so big, and having so many cycle routes, that's just the way it is. So how do you represent 40 cycle routes with fewer than 40 colours?

This is where Parker's system really comes into its own. His second trick is to group the routes by colour depending on their orientation with respect to a series of compass axes (hence the name 'Compass Colours System'). All routes on the North/South axis are allocated a particular colour. All routes on the East/West axis are allocated another colour. All routes on the North-East/South-West axis are allocated another colour. And so on. Actually, things are slightly more subtle than this. In his London Cycle Map design, to achieve maximal economy, Parker divides the compass with five axes, rather than the four usually defined by the North, South, East and West axes and their diagonal combinations.

Colour-coding London's cycle routes by compass axes may sound abstract, but it has some important practical consequences. One consequence is that compass-coloured routes are always straight. This is a good thing, because the aim of cycling in London is usually to travel to your destination as directly (and hence energy-efficiently) as possible. Parker’s map would help you to do this. You’d seldom need to change from one route to another when using it, especially since Parker’s routes are long as well as straight.

Another consequence of colouring routes by compass axes is that routes of the same colour are always parallel to each other, never intersecting. That is, on Parker’s map, routes of the same colour always head in the same direction, so (with a couple of exceptions) they don’t cross each other. For instance, no red route crosses another red route. No green route crosses another green route. And so on. Each of the parallel coloured routes on Parker’s map has its own number, i.e. Red 1, Red 2, Red 3, Green 1, Green 2, Green 3, etc.

Giving parallel routes the same colour is important because it means that while cycling on a route you’d only have to concentrate on following its colour not its number, since all the other numbered routes of that particular colour would be irrelevant – you wouldn't encounter them. This would make cycling on Parker’s routes really simple; as if you were using a mini-map (i.e. one containing only one route of the particular colour you're following) within a larger map. Of course, you might deliberately swap from, say, one red route to another red route via a second colour. And in this case you would need to make sure you’d paid attention to the number codes accompanying the second colour and the next red route. But in almost all cases it would be impossible to swap accidentally from a route of one colour to another route of the same colour. As long as you kept following that particular colour, you couldn’t go wrong.

The overall effect of using long straight routes coloured in parallel is that Parker’s map covers London with waves of coloured routes at five different angles evenly spread throughout the 360-degree range of a compass. This might sounds complex, but in reality it yields the map’s stunning simplicity. Imagine you were somewhere in London, and wanted to get, say, four miles away. Because Parker’s system dissects London so comprehensively, wherever you were there’d be five routes near you, each of which extends out in one of ten different directions evenly spread throughout a 360-degree range. To appreciate this, just draw a star with five lines, and look at the centre of the star. From there, you can 'travel' towards the edges of the page in ten different directions. On Parker's Map this means that, wherever you were in London, you would always find a long straight cycle route nearby which is marked by a single colour and which runs in the general direction of your destination, wherever that may be. And, at the start of your journey, all you’d have to do is get onto that route.

Now look at it from the point of view of your destination. That would also have five different long straight routes near it, which extend out in ten different directions. One of these routes would extend out towards where you are, using a single colour. Hence, in order to get from where you are to where you want to go, you’d just need to end up on that route.

And here’s the crucial point. Since it’s true that wherever you are in London there would always be a long, straight coloured route that heads away from you in the general direction of your chosen destination, and vice versa, it’s virtually impossible to find any two points on Parker’s network that aren’t connected by a direct trajectory comprising just a few coloured routes. Think of it this way: every point on the map is ‘reaching out’ via a long straight coloured route in more or less every possible direction, so any two points logically must ‘reach out’ to each other more or less directly – like Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Sometimes, of course, the route that you started off on would be identical to the route you’d need to end up on: in this case, one straight coloured route would lead you all the way to your destination. Other times, you’d need to thread your start and end routes together – perhaps with a third or fourth route in between. But in either case you’d just have to use your mind’s eye to trace the straightest trajectory linking where you are to your destination on the map, and then remember the colours and numbers of the routes along that trajectory.

Well, that’s my explanation for how Parker’s London Cycle Map achieves such amazing economy. But in a way it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. The fact is, Parker’s Compass Colours System would enable you to get from anywhere to anywhere in London on a vast network of cycle routes simply by remembering (in almost all cases) three routes or fewer. Without any explanation, that’s impressive enough: after all, you don’t need to know how an engine works to be able to drive a car. Parker’s system blows the current cycling mapping options in London – and, indeed, any others I’ve seen across the world – out of the water.

Cycling owes Simon Parker a debt of recognition. He spent years poring over numerous maps of London’s cycle routes (a numerousness which is itself part of the problem, of course), and it took incredible perseverance for him to distil the Compass Colours System out of that tangled mess.

If we implement Parker’s scheme, regular Londoners will be able to cycle throughout the capital, safely and simply, by following a few trails of colour, just like on the Tube: a scenario beyond people’s wildest dreams until Parker came along. Imagination is a wonderful thing. Turning it into reality is finer still.

Please help us by proudly displaying the London Cycle Map Campaign logo on your website, joining us on facebook or twitter, or otherwise telling your family, friends, colleagues, customers and MPs about the campaign and petition.


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