10 March 2015

Another symbolic failure

I recently wrote an article about the importance of the correct use of symbols for units of measurements, citing examples of cock-ups from other countries, but had no photographic evidence. Recently, I was in Sri Lanka, where everything (that's not a remnant from its colonial past) is metric - including the speed limits. I was therefore surprised that on the signs speeds were specified in kmph rather than km/h.  (See below). 

01 December 2014

The importance of specifying units (and getting them right)

I came across theet of sign, which, although completely metric, bothered me ever so slightly. 

Firstly, the use of 'T' rather than 't' for tonnes. Something that needs to be corrected on UK weight limit signs in general. 

The lower sign, however, gives a figure of 4425, which we can only reasonable assume to be millimetres. (You can't be sure because the units aren't specified. Maybe it's just a random number?)

Such signs give an impression that metric units are complicated when, in fact,  they are much simpler than the alternative. 

But the use of the appropriate scale is paramount. 4.4 m would be a much more appropriate for this sign.

05 October 2014

Misuse of metric symbols: an international problem

Having spent considerable amounts of time in different countries and having visited four continents in the past few months, I've noticed that what many (including myself) consider to be a uniquely British or anglophone problem is in fact prevalent in a number of other countries - some of which have been metric for their entire existence.

I've posted images of signs in the UK using 'mtrs' for metres where 'm' should be used and I've discussed the nonsensicality of the use of kph instead of km/h in the British context, whilst lauding the metrication efforts of other anglophone countries in a similar metric limbo to the United Kingdom. Whilst I do stand by my argument that in the UK, we need to fully utilise our official system of measurements, and do so properly, I've come to realise that we're not the only country screwing this up.

The most common violation of the BIPM's accepted symbols for metric units is the (mis)use of 'mtr' to represent metre (and often its pluralisation to 'mtrs' for metres). The fact that this abbreviation is used in numerous countries does to some degree erode the validity of the argument for the universal symbol 'm', but not entirely.

Whilst it may be true that speakers of languages which use Latin characters may naturally guess that 'mtr' means metre, the whole purpose of having an internationally accepted symbol is so that everyone - regardless of whether their languages use Latin, Arabic, Oriental or Slavic characters will know 'm' is metre.

An additional point to note is that writing '100 m' is three characters less than writing '100 mtrs'. This yields some financial savings. The first is obvious. By using fewer letters, less time is used and fewer resources are employed. Even if the additional cost of the extra three letters is £0.00001, at an aggregate level, it could add up to a substantial amount of savings - this is common sense.

The second set of benefits from using international standard 'm' for metres (and only for metres) is the time savings and efficiency savings from misunderstanding. Mtr can mean any number of things (including being the name of the Hong Kong metro), whereas 'm' should only mean metres. I think it should be relatively simple to see why using the SI symbol makes sense - if only the real world worked like that.

The purpose of this post, is not to justify Britain's lax attitude to metrication, but to highlight an opportunity. When metric signs do become a norm (I have faith), we as a country can at least get it right and be an example to the world. We can ensure signs are posted in 'km' and not 'kms', 'km/h' and not 'kph', 'kg' and not 'KGs', etc. We just have to get to that stage first.

19 January 2014

Just How Metric is Britain?

With the average person giving their height in feet and inches, weighing their babies in pounds and ounces, quoting distances in miles, it is very easy to forget that the metric system is the official system of measurements throughout the United Kingdom. This begs the question: Why does the imperial system still dominate our speech?

To answer the sub question, I will focus primarily on road signs, the vast majority of which are in imperial measures (typically miles and yards). With these being the measurements which most people see on a day to day basis, it impacts the decision people make regarding measurements. Seeing miles and yards on the road is more likely to make an individual speak in miles and yards for distances - in spite of their education in metres and kilometres. This has the knock-on effect of using miles per gallon for fuel consumption (although you would struggle to find an imperial gallon anywhere around) and miles per hour for speed. This has wider impacts in the media too: for example, wind speeds being given in MPH, rural locations being quoted as x miles from the nearest town, etc. But I won't go off on a tangent.

The use of imperial road signs and speed limits is also rather illogical. Imperial warriors will claim that it is nonsensical to change speed limits and distances, however it is the maintenance of the use of imperial measures that is nonsensical. My reasoning for this statement is simple and will answer the question: Just how metric is Britain?

Roads in the United Kingdom are designed to metric specifications. Any road being built will have its length and breadth stated exclusively in metres or kilometres. If in doubt, you should be able to find the plans for most roads already built in the UK on the relevant local authority's website. Moreover, all roads have a design speed which is modelled and specified in kilometres per hour. (All widely-used traffic models in the UK use only km/h for speeds and km for distances). All of this information is then converted to miles and MPH for the signs which go on the road, reducing accuracy and quite frankly wasting resources.

So, just how metric is Britain?

More metric than most would like to think.

Our roads really are metric, despite what may would like to think - and just about everything else is too.

21 September 2013

Minutes and Metres

I find it particularly annoying when finger posts, directional signs and maps quote distances in times instead of actual measurements. Saying that Westminster Cathedral is 4 minutes away by foot is a little bit idiotic. What if I don't have a watch? What if I walk substantially slower/faster than everyone else? 

This problem is particularly acute in London, where many maps encircle areas that are within a particular distance – quoted in minutes of course. 

The problem with using minutes on finger posts and directional signs is simple: a minute is not the same to everyone. An elderly person may cover 40 metres in a minute, a short person may cover 60 metres in a minute and a tall person (like myself) can easily cover 120 metres in a minute. 

To make matters even more confusing, there is no record as to what speed one is expected to walk at to match the times posted on these signs. So pedestrians are left completely in the dark about the actual distance they actually need to travel to reach their destination. 

My opinion is very simple. Get rid of the minutes and use metres. It makes sense. A metre is te same to everyone, everywhere.  I'd even prefer yards to minutes – and that says a lot. 

In Leyton, it seems like Waltham Forest council have made a feeble attempt to  reduce the ambiguity of 'minute' sighs by also including metres. Whilst I am happy that metres we're chosen in place of yards, the signs quote metres as an abbreviation 'mtrs' instead of the approved symbol 'm'.

When will they learn. 

11 September 2013

Metric Signs in Islington

A few years back, I recall there being an uproar spurred on by the BMWA over Islington Council's decision to use exclusively metric units on some road signs. These included height and width restriction signs, as well as speed bump warnings. 

The vandals removed and defaced many of the signs and mounted pressure on Islington council to replace them with imperial-only signs.  This has left the borough with a series of width restriction signs that are labelled as  6'6" , when in fact they mean 2.0 metres. (In most other places these are dual-unit signs) Considering that vehicle dimensions are specified in millimetres in manuals, anyone without a calculator is at risk of doing damage to their vehicle. 

I managed to find one sign (see below) that escaped the ravages of the BMWA. However, this sign is not without its flaws. 
The sign states Humps for 600 mtrs. 

According to the BIPM, there should never be any abbreviation for the metre – or any metric unit for that matter. Only the whole word or the SI symbol (m) should be used. 

Therefore, the sign should read: Humps for 600 m

Nonetheless, it's always a pleasure to see metric signs on our roads and this is evidence that they pose no danger to road users, who generally speak in metres anyway. 


05 June 2013

Heathrow Airport: Another Classic Example of British Pussyfooting

This post departs slightly from the core theme of the blog. However the airport capacity crisis faced in London is a result of the same problem: The the government's inability to make quick decisions on the matters likely to have a considerable impact on Britain’s future as a modern, strong and growing economy.

The DfT published their strategy with the vision for expanding Heathrow airport back in 2006 and announced the expansion three years later. The expansion project would have consisted of a new 2,200 metre runway, a sixth terminal and a high-speed railway hub. Local residents and councils opposed the plan on the grounds that it would destroy local communities. The expansion would require the demolition of the village of Sipson and over 700 homes. In addition to this, the local residents who would not have to forego their homes would then have to endure more noise pollution and poorer air quality due to the increased air traffic.

Upon being elected in 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow Airport amid to protests from environmental groups and local residents. Now, as Heathrow is running at 99% capacity and many analysts envision an imminent airport capacity crunch for London and the South East, the debate has risen from the ashes. The government have reversed their position on the issue and commissioned a report to assess airport capacity in the South East. A decision will be made after the 2015 general election.

With aircraft currently landing and departing every 45 seconds at Heathrow, landing slots are costly relative to comparable airports in Europe. This also leaves very little slack in the event of extreme weather or a mishap on the runway. This lack of spare capacity has put significant pressure on Heathrow being a global hub. Many airlines prefer to use airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid due to lower costs and more landing slots. Between 1990 and the present, the number of destinations served by Heathrow has declined from 227 to just 194. Frankfurt Airport serves 307 destinations in 94 countries, Amsterdam Schiphol serves 281 and Paris Charles de Gaulle serves 292.

This has a profound impact on the economy. A number of empirical studies have shown that investment in transport infrastructure has a positive impact in GDP. This supports historical data which show that improvements in transport connectivity have been pivotal in supporting the rapid growth of economies. The data also reveal that transport improvements have been a critical driving force in past phases of globalisation.

Although transport infrastructure has a profound impact in rapidly developing countries, its effect in developed countries is more incremental. In spite of this, a lack of capacity has been shown to constrain growth. Frontier Economics, a consultancy, has predicted that Britain could miss out on £1.2 – £1.6 billion of trade a year if capacity continues to be constrained. Colin Matthews, the CEO of BAA, Heathrow’s parent company said, ‘if Britain is not to lose out to international competitors, we need an aviation policy that recognises the role of a hub airport in supporting growth – and we need it quickly.’ Better connections will be needed as emerging economies continue to grow and increase trade with the West. It is expected that by 2021, if Heathrow remains constrained, it will only account for 21% of the seats booked to the 8 fastest growing economies from the five European hubs compared to 35% if it were allowed to expand.

Boris Johnson, London’s Conservative Mayor, has proposed a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow as a hub. This is not a new proposal, the first plans to construct an airport in the Thames Estuary date back to 1943, just a year before Heathrow was upgraded from a small airfield, to a larger airfield to cope with larger aeroplanes destined to the Far East. The airport in the Thames Estuary would be a purpose-built international airport of four runways, and due to its distance from most settlements, would be operational for a full 24 hours a day.

The idea of a brand new airport may seem rosy, but the Thames estuary is a habitat for many endangered species of birds. Building an airport is likely to upset their habitats and endanger them further. Furthermore, the airport will have to be built on an artificial island or on reclaimed land. This means that it will be at least a generation before the airport comes to fruition. The airport itself would cost £20 billion, but due to its location an additional £30 billion would have to be spent in order to provide the infrastructure necessary to support such an airport.

At Heathrow, this infrastructure already exists. It is well served by National Rail and the London Underground, and will also be served by Crossrail and HS2. Heathrow is also not as old and dated as many like to think. Terminal 5 is just five years old, a spiffy new Terminal 2 will open in the coming months and there are plans to modernise Terminals 1 and 3 in the near future. Expanding at Heathrow is the quicker, cheaper option, but the government are determined to explore all the alternatives.

Though expanding Heathrow makes economic sense, a third runway is not the answer. For Heathrow to keep up with other hub airports, four runways are needed. This could be achieved with less disruption than the third runway proposal. Tim Leuing, an economist, proposed that by expanding westwards, where the land is less densely populated, four runways could be added with relative ease. His proposal is an example of sheer brilliance. Instead of demolishing hundreds of homes to cram in another runway and terminal, extending westwards requires covering over a 2 km stretch of the M25 and filling in some of a large reservoir.
Source: libdemvoice.org

There are various other advantages to this expansion project.
• It can take place gradually, as demand grows or as time allows
• No need for businesses or workers to migrate to another airport
• More of the final approach will be over airport buildings than residential areas
• Facilitates construction of more terminal buildings without additional extension of airport boundary

 The fact is simple; Britain needs a modern, fit-for-purpose hub airport. Leuing’s proposal for four runways at Heathrow is the most prudent. The government needs to come to a conclusion and make a decision quickly otherwise Britain will run the risk of being left behind once again.