What Street Signs are Missing

As a Berkeley student, I end up doing a fair amount of walking. According to my Apple Fitness app, it averages to something like 4 miles a day. I’d say this is a fairly typical average. It follows that my fellow students and I have a pretty solid mental map of the parts of Berkeley immediately surrounding campus.

And yet, I’ve found it’s surprisingly difficult to discuss directions with my friends. It seems that everyone has developed their own unique mental representation of Berkeley’s geography. For example, I once made plans to meet with two friends at a restaurant I’d never been to before. When I asked them where to find it, the conversation went something like this:

  • Me: Where is the restaurant?
  • Friend 1: It’s on Telegraph [Ave].
  • Me: Okay, where on Telegraph?
  • Friend 1: You know, down Telegraph. Telegraph and Parker, I think.
  • Me: Sure, which side of the intersection?
  • Friend 2: The left side.
  • Me: What does that mean?
  • Friend 1: No, dude, it’s on the right side.
  • Me: This means nothing to me… What corner is it on? Northeast? Southwest?
  • Friend 2: I’m confused, just look it up on Google Maps.

Clearly, there is a problem here. Looking the restaurant up on Google Maps did clear things up, but in my opinion, it should not have been necessary to do so.

To be more sure this was a real problem, I quickly gathered some data from my friends on Facebook. I asked publicly in a Facebook group for one of my clubs for people to send me a direct message telling me whether they thought the phrase “down College Ave.” meant North toward campus or South toward Oakland.

The “South side” of Berkeley

As I predicted, the results varied:

How we construct our understanding of geography depends on a wide range of factors. For example, the restaurant I met my friends at turned out to be at the Northwest corner of Telegraph and Parker. The friend who said that was the left side lives just South of Parker on the East side of Telegraph. The other friend lives on the corner of Dwight and Benvenue. In their minds, describing a location as on the “right” or “left” side of a street is sufficient, since their understanding of “right” and left” depends on the direction from which they approach the destination.

In order to facilitate clear communication, it behooves us to find a common language for directions.

The Cardinal Directions

Such a language already exists. The direction from any point on Earth to another point on Earth can be precisely and sufficiently described using the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West, and degrees from each.) Despite this, people, especially pedestrians, tend not to use the cardinal directions to describe their location or to give directions to a destination. If using the cardinal directions would facilitate communication, why do we not use them?

The answer may lie in our heuristic processing, which uses knowledge structures that are learned and stored in memory to reduce our cognitive effort when making decisions and interpretations. This model of processing relies on three factors : availability, accessiblity, and applicability. Briefly, availability refers to the existence of a particular knowledge structure, accessibility refers to the ability to retrieve said knowledge structure, and applicability describes the relevance of the knowledge structure to a given situation.

In the context of giving directions and describing location, the cardinal directions are certainly applicable. But perhaps they lack in availability and accessibility. How might we go about increasing the availability and accessibility so that using North, South, East and West is the most intuitive way to describe our location?

The short answer: street signs.

What are street signs for? When I’m using street signs as a pedestrian, I have two main use cases:

  1. Find out where I am
  2. Find out where I’m going

As they currently stand, the Berkeley street signs bring me part of the way to my goal. At any given intersection, street signs tell me the names and positions of the two streets that intersect and the direction in which the numbering increases. In terms of my location, it certainly helps me to know that I am, in fact, at a certain intersection and not at any other intersection. But the information is incomplete: Which corner of the intersection am I on? If I know my destination is south of street X, which way should I walk to make sure I get there? The numbering cue is helpful if I am navigating toward a specific address, but what if I don’t have one to navigate to?

Constructing a new heuristic model for pedestrian navigation

The solution may be as simple as adding directions to either sides of street signs. The simple addition of two letters to the sign makes a dramatic difference in how informative they are:

  1. A pedestrian at an intersection will know if they are at, for example, the southwest corner.
  2. Someone who knows they must head south of X street knows which direction to walk.

Superficially, this doesn’t solve the original problem. When someone is giving directions to a restaurant, they will not be at the restaurant looking at street signs. But the idea is that, by making the information readily and externally available, the cardinal directions will become an accessible part of pedestrians’ spatial understanding of a city.


I have no idea how much it costs to replace every street sign in a city, but I can’t imagine it would be cheap. Most cities these days don’t seem to have a limitless supply of cash for these sorts of projects.

So the solution might even be as simple as a sticker to place on existing signs, as seen in the example above. For each pair of street signs, only one sticker is technically necessary. Interpreting this sign would be more cognitively expensive, but less monetarily expensive. This tradeoff could probably be handled at the city level.


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