A, B, C and M: Road Numbering Revealed

By Peter Bancroft, Andrew Emmerson  |  Finished: 19th February 2011  |  Back to library

A, B, C and M: Road Numbering Revealed

Believe it or not, Britain didn’t always have the road numbering system. The druids who built Stonehenge lugged their rocks along unmarked mud paths and even William the Conqueror had to get from Hastings to London without the clearly-signposted A21. It’s shocking, I know. And there are even claims that our road numbering system isn’t even British at all, but French, with André Michelin of the famous Michelin company among its architects.

This is the territory of “Road Numbering Revealed”, a surprisingly short book that would be counted as a novella if published as fiction. But how much can anyone really be expected to write about this subject – and how much does an average reader really want to know about it?

Well, information architects are not average readers, and they might approach this book as a case study of a complex and well-known piece of information design. It works quite well on this level. But I’d be surprised if many came away with renewed admiration for the road numbering system. Instead it seems like an example of needless structure, a classification system that sounded good in planning committees but brings nothing of value to the outside world.

For example: did you know that A roads starting with “4” must all originate somewhere between the M4 and the M5? If you did, has that knowledge ever stopped you getting lost? And if you didn’t, have you somehow been able to use the roads despite your ignorance? It’s not that road numbers themselves are futile, it’s the geographical system for assigning them that seems pointless. The valuable lesson here for information architects (including myself) is about the temptation to overengineer things.

Other than self-questioning information architects, who else would want to read this book? Fans of trivia and competitive pub-quiz enthusiasts, I would say. But be warned – the book is extremely short, and extremely dry. If you’re interested in this subject but would like a thicker and livelier read, you’d be better off with On Roads by Joe Moran.

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