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Street Signs Intended To Give Pakistani City New Direction

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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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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