London's Nameless Streets

Evening Standard 06-08-1996

To the amazement of foreign tourists and the irritation of Londoners, a large proportion of London's street name signs are unreadable or non-existent, as Christopher Long has discovered...

London boroughs which fail to provide clear street name signs are infuriating Londoners, hampering the emergency services, and endangering and baffling visitors to the Capital, it emerged this week.

Across large swathes of London, hundreds and probably thousands of street name signs are either obscure, covered in graffiti, hidden behind undergrowth or quite simply non-existent.

"It's not so bad for us cab-drivers because we have to learn them all by heart," says 33 year-old black cab driver Garry Slattery. "But it's really bad in some boroughs and it can cause us real problems when other drivers don't know where they are or end up crawling the streets looking for signs which don't exist."

"Some boroughs like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea aren't too bad and Hackney and the Park Royal area in Brent are getting a lot better, but there are others, like parts of Islington and Camden, which are appalling."

London's emergency services find the problem worrying too – so much so that the Fire Service has had to produce printed guides and organise seminars to try and encourage council officials take the matter seriously and to carry out their obligations, which many of them signally still fail to do.

"Most of our crews know their patch pretty well so they can usually find their way around," a Fire Service spokeswoman says. "But the problem gets serious when people see a fire, find a phone to report it to us but then haven't been able to see a sign identifying the street concerned. That can be serious and we may have to spend a lot of time trying to identify the location using landmarks."

London's Ambulance Service reports similar findings. They say that the increasing use of mobile phones makes the problem worse.

"People often see an incident and use their mobile to contact us. But this can present problems if they don't know the area, can't see a street name and we can't locate where the phone's being used from."

The problem is also adding to traffic congestion and makes driving far more hazardous for other road users, according to cab driver Garry Slattery:

"Normally people get out a map and plan their journey if they don't know the route. But if there are no street signs, that's pointless. So you get people driving with one hand, holding a map in the other, trying to work out which street is which."

"Then, if there is a street name, but it's only visible to traffic coming in the other direction, you get drivers over-shooting the turning and peering back over their shoulders to catch the name and then slamming on the brakes and doing sharp turns too late and all against on-coming traffic they probably haven't seen properly. It can be a nightmare."

Worse still is the problem for continental drivers who are accustomed to clear signing and find themselves adrift and lost in a nameless warren of streets with traffic so congested that they can't stop to ask the way even if they can speak English.

The Evening Standard tested the problem in Islington, Hornsey and Camden and found hundreds of obscurely marked streets. Among the common problems were:

  1. No name signs at all
  2. Signs obscured by graffiti or undergrowth
  3. Signs visible to drivers travelling in one direction but not the other
  4. Signs which are hidden behind parked cars
  5. Signs too high, too low or in illogical positions
  6. No signs at T-junctions and intersections
  7. Signs so rusted or damaged that they're illegible
  8. Signs dating from the 1920s and 1930s with no postal district marked

"I'm surprised that Londoners can cope with it," says Margret Scherer, a 28 year-old German linguist who recently settled in London.

"London is a huge international capital which should be aware that many foreigners have to find their way around. Many things are well organised here but why are so many road signs obscured by trees or placed just where they can't be seen. Often there aren't any signs at all! In a car in London it's difficult to drive safely if you can't see or don't know where to look for this simple but important information."

She's also quite baffled by the fact that the house numbers are usually difficult to see or not marked at all. Garry Slattery agrees:

"Why can't they make a policy on long, major roads of marking which way the numbers are going and whether they're odd or even on one side or the other. You can drive up and down roads for ages before you know whether you're heading in the right direction."

In many European countries street names are positioned at every intersection as well as at intervals along major roads. Furthermore, householders and businesses are required by law to display clearly visible numbering.

Here in London there are still street signs such as "Pond Road, N" dating from the days when London's postal districts were divided quite simply into N, S, E and W.

The Metropolitan Police say that, like the fire and ambulance services, their officers have learnt to cope with obscure or non-existent street signs by learning the area from frequent patrols. However, they were unable to say how the average motorist or pedestrian might cope. "If motorists can't see the signs then we would suggest they pull over to the side of the road," a spokeswoman says. "If they drive dangerously as a consequence of trying to read obscure signs then, of course, they would be liable to prosecution."

Islington Council, with a large number of obscure or non-existent signs says that it has agreed a new design for street signs and that thirty new ones are due for erection with orders pending for a further forty.

"We don't actually have anyone driving around periodically checking for missing signs," a spokesman says, "so we have to rely on the public contacting us if action is needed. Furthermore, we can't just trim back undergrowth. We have to get the owners to do this under the powers of the Highways Acts."

"The Evening Standard's exercise is valuable to us but in the end we need the public to keep in touch with us."

This, however, is unlikely to solve the problem since it is visitors to an area who are likely to need signs and notice their absence rather than residents who presumably know where they live.

Camden too has produced a new street sign design and new name plates are beginning to appear in some parts of the borough.

On a short sample car journey, chosen randomly, from Belsize Park to Crouch End via Highgate and Holloway, the Evening Standard found the following:

  1. Upper Park Road – obscured by pub lighting
  2. Tasker Road – filthy and illegible
  3. No sign at the junction of Garnet Road and Lawn Road
  4. No sign for Cressy Road
  5. Heath Hurst Road – obscured by a tree
  6. Only one-way visible signs for Downshire Hill and Cannon Lane
  7. No visible sign – North End Way
  8. Hampstead Lane at Spaniards – obscured by undergrowth
  9. Only one-way visible signs – Bishops Avenue, Highgate Hill, Cholmondley Park, Hornsey Lane, Despard Road & Magdala Avenue
  10. No sign – St John's Way
  11. Illegible sign – St John's Villas
  12. One-way only visible sign – St John's Grove
  13. Illegible one-way only visible signs – Rupert Road, Wedmore Street and Tavistock Terrace
  14. Obscure sign – junction Holloway Road/Seven Sisters Road
  15. No signs – junction of Loraine Road/Annette Road
  16. No signs – junction of Shelburne Road/Hornsey Road
  17. No signs – junction of Hornsey Road/Tollington Road
  18. No signs – junction of Hornsey Road/Seven Sisters Road
  19. Pre-war signs with no postal district – Pond Street & Fairbridge Road
  20. No sign – Lambton Road
  21. No sign – Shaftsbury Road
  22. No sign – Ashley Road

© (1996) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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