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Street Signs Intended To Give Pakistani City New Direction

Dec 30, 2012
Originally published on March 20, 2013 10:31 am

Landlords built Lahore in a haphazard way over centuries. They didn't concern themselves with city grids or sensible mapping. As a result, Lahore is renowned in Pakistan for being almost impossible to navigate.

And that's where Asim Fayaz and Khurram Siddiqi come in.

Fayaz and Siddiqi won a $10,000 grant from TED, the U.S.-based foundation that promotes ideas in a variety of fields and often helps fund them. Their project was to do something that seems pretty straightforward: Put up some street signs in a pilot program in one neighborhood of Lahore.

The Kindness Of Strangers

It sounds simple, but it could change the city. To understand why, you need to know that getting around in Lahore, and in a lot of Pakistani cities, is dependent, literally, on the kindness of strangers.

You get a general direction from one person and then you roll down your window and ask five or six more along the way. People don't mention street names. Instead, they identify landmarks.

"Drive until you see the Habib Bank, then make a left," they say. "When you see the corner shop with the Pepsi sign, make a right."

There is such a dearth of street signs in Lahore that last year Google Maps began using landmarks — not street names — when it provided directions around the city.

Siddiqi says that just isn't sustainable.

"We want to minimize dependence on landmarks," he says. "Let me give you an example: For a long time, there was a building being built by my house and it took forever to be made. So people were like, 'Just turn left where the construction is' ... and when the building was completed, people just couldn't find my house."

Fayaz and Siddiqi took me to Allama Iqbal Town, where they plan to launch a prototype of their street sign. It is one of the most densely populated localities in Lahore and we go in search of the competition: existing street signs. They are few and far between.

Fayaz spots the first one. It is only a little bigger than a 5-by-7 index card and all twisted metal and Urdu lettering. It is hanging about 10 feet off the ground on a pole. And it was almost impossible to spot.

Fayaz and Siddiqi are having to master the science of street signs.

"There are lots of factors: What speed are you traveling? What direction are you looking at? The driver's eye shouldn't stray too far from the road. There is a certain angle," Siddiqi says. "Of course another constraint that will come in, obviously, is the cost of production."

The first phase of the project will include about 100 signs in a square block area of Iqbal Town. (Omer Sheikh, a Google Map Maker Advocate for Pakistan, is also part of the street sign team.)

And the two entrepreneurs are hoping that local residents love their streets signs so much they will inspire others to follow suit. That said, they don't think this will be easy. For generations, Pakistanis have been rolling down their windows to ask for directions every couple of blocks. So Fayaz and Siddiqi plan to launch an education campaign to convince Lahore residents that street signs are better.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Street signs are not something we think much about here in the United States. We might even take them for granted. But in one of Pakistan's oldest cities, Lahore, street signs are rare. Two young entrepreneurs are hoping to change all that with a project to make street signs in Lahore commonplace. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Landlords built Lahore in a haphazard way over centuries. They didn't worry about city grids or sensible mapping. As a result, the city is renowned in Pakistan for being almost impossible to navigate, which is where my two local guides come in.

ASIM FAYAZ: My name is Asim Fayaz and I am 24 years old.

KHURRAM SIDDIQUI: Yeah, my name is Khurram Siddiqui. And basically Asim and I got together because of TEDxLahore, and we're just really interested in seeing how we can improve the urban arrangement and planning of Lahore right now.

TEMPLE-RASTON: TED is U.S.-based foundation that promotes ideas in a variety of fields and often helps fund them. Asim and Khurram won a $10,000 grant from the TED Foundation to do something that seems pretty straight forward - put up some street signs in a pilot program in one neighborhood of Lahore. It sounds simple, but it could fundamentally change this city. To understand why you need to know that getting around in Lahore, and in lots of Pakistani cities, is dependent on the kindness of strangers. You get a general direction from one person and then you roll down your window and ask five or six more along the way. The people don't tell you the street names, they identify landmarks. Drive until you see the Habib Bank then make a left, they say. When you see the corner shop with the Pepsi sign, make a right. There's such a dearth of street signs in Lahore, last year Google Maps began using landmarks - not street names - when it provided directions around the city. Khurram Siddiqui says that just isn't sustainable.

SIDDIQUI: We wanted to just basically minimize dependence on landmarks because for a long time, I mean, you know, there was a building being built beside my house. And, you know, it took forever to be made. So, people were like, yeah, so turn left where the construction is. And when the building was complete people just couldn't find my house.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So, Asim and Khurram decide to drive me down to Allama Iqbal Town where they plan to launch a prototype of their street sign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

TEMPLE-RASTON: It is one of the most densely populated localities in Lahore, and we go in search of the competition - namely existing street signs. They are few and far between. Asim spots the first one.

FAYAZ: See that sign up there?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That little tiny one with the numbers on it?

FAYAZ: Yeah. That's street sign.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's a street sign?

FAYAZ: Yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's excellent.

(LAUGHTER)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The reason he is laughing? Because the sign is only a little bigger than a five-by-seven index card, and was all twisted metal and Urdu lettering. It was hanging about ten feet off the ground on a pole and it was almost impossible to spot. It turns out there is a bit of a science to street signs.

SIDDIQUI: What speed are you traveling, what direction are you looking at, you know, the driver's eye shouldn't, you know, stray too far from the road. There is a certain angle. And another constraint that comes in will be, you know, obviously, the cost of production.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The first phase of the project will include about 100 signs in a square block area of Iqbal Town. And the two entrepreneurs are hoping that local residents love their streets signs so much they'll inspire other neighborhoods to follow suit. They don't think this will be easy. Pakistanis have been rolling down their windows to ask for directions every couple of blocks for generations. So, Khurram and Asim plan an education campaign to convince Lahore residents that street signs are better. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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