London: Website helps you navigate the city’s confusing streets

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Consult for a route along Regents Canal. Photo: Ed.ward
Consult for a route along Regents Canal. Photo: Ed.ward

As any visitor to London (and probably more than a few residents) can attest, getting around the city on foot can be maddeningly confusing. Because London grew over the centuries by swallowing up neighboring villages and towns, there’s little rhyme or reason to its layout. Hence the existence of mews, the charming narrow alleys where wealthy Londoners once had their stables. And even narrower passageways like the one behind Whitechapel Gallery, where Jack the Ripper is believed to have lived.

And roundabouts. Don’t even get me started on roundabouts. My partner and I had a couple of hairy experiences driving through those death traps this past weekend.

London: Step by Step

Fortunately, there’s a new website called that aims to help directionally challenged people like myself find their way around London, without the use of an “A to Z Guide.” (Although this detailed street map guide is always handy to have as a backup, should you really get lost.) map of Central London

A 200-calorie walk. (Click to enlarge.)

Launched by environmentalist and walking advocate Jamie Wallace three years ago, Walkit maps out any route you’d like to take by foot in 14 different British cities. All you do is enter your starting point and desired destination, and the site will give you directions for the quickest walking trip between the two points, along with the distance, the time it should take you, the calories you’ll burn, and the carbon dioxide emissions you would have contributed to the environment had you taken the tube, car, or bus. It even tells you how many steps you’ll take (seriously).

There are also two alternate routes you can map—a “less busy” walk avoiding major roads and a “low pollution” walk that takes you along parks and through quiet neighborhoods.

The Test Drive… er, Walk

Naturally, I wanted to try the site out. I conducted two tests from my house on a tiny street in East London that’s probably a third of a block long and dead-ends on a park. I figure if the program can find my street, that’s a reasonably good start. (It did.)

For the first test, I tried a short walk to a restaurant called the Albion near my house. Although it’s probably only five minutes away, I spent 15 minutes looking for it the other night. (Tip: Know the exact address you’re looking for, right down to the postal code and the cross street. You’ll need these in case there are multiple streets in London with the same name as the one you want).

The site’s instructions were very clear—I was told how many meters to walk before each turn and when I’d pass an identifiable landmark (like a Pizza Express). But I noticed on the map that there appeared to be a shorter route along a side road called Holywell Lane. A flaw! I couldn’t wait to prove the site wrong.

When I got to Holywell Lane, though, I found it blocked off for construction work until the end of 2009. I was wrong… and duly impressed.

The Low-Pollution Route

For the next test, I wanted to see what a “low pollution” walk was all about. So I randomly picked a destination near Victoria Park in northeast London to see if the site would route me near or through the park. Not only did it do that, it also sent me on a very enjoyable, mile-long walk along leafy Regents Canal, via a hard-to-spot set of stairs from a main street.

The only pollution I encountered? Two lawnmowers and a guy burning weeds in his back yard. (Isn’t that how the Great Fire of London started?)

There’s something to note about the “low-pollution” routes, though. You may miss some of the city’s biggest sights (such as Piccadilly Circus) if you choose to avoid congested areas. Same goes for the quickest routes. Walkit doesn’t create routes specifically geared to tourist attractions, but there are plenty of free and inexpensive guided tours for that. (Check out our blog post on five free London walking tours.)

Wallace says Walkit is adding about one new city a month to the site, with Coventry and Sunderland next. We want to see this great resource expand to cities across Europe, too.

About the author

About the author: Justin Bergman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Monocle magazine. He’s also previously worked for Budget Travel magazine and the Associated Press.

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