Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Great Britain road numbering scheme (wikipedia.org)
42 points by wlj 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

Slightly off topic... UK road signs have a very clear and consistent color scheme based on the category of road. E.g., blue background for motorways, green background for A roads.

This scheme was (maybe still is) reflected in the color of roads on printed maps. Google Maps also used this scheme some years ago.

I understand their reasoning, but the day Google standardized on the current yellow & white scheme was a sad day for this UK Maps user.

This is another good reason to use Apple Maps.

Probably the most useful numbering scheme in the UK is the postcodes. It is very accurate and simple to use. For example, if you are looking for any house you can just use the postcode instead of the actual house's address, and 99% of the times you will arrive very close to the house by using the GPS based navigation [1].

It is also very easy to remember and I still remember my former school's postcode despite have not been there for more than 20 years. It is quite an achievement given that I sometimes even forget my current car's registration number.


Post codes are sometimes totally unique for an address; they're always unique in combination with the street (or flat) number.

E.g. a short form address (useful for scribbling a return address on the back of an envelope/parcel for example) could be '123/AB4 5CD' instead of '123 St George Crescent // Upper Bockingbrook // Froimington // Froimingtonshire // AB4 5CD'.

Yep, many years ago had several thousand pieces of testing mail delivered. Names and address text had been scrubbed, but house number and post code was enough to get them delivered. All of the letters were watermarked Test, but somebody just put them through the envelope stuffer and out they went. Next test all the house numbers and post codes were changed to the bosses address!

I'd never thought of that. It would be technically feasible in Canada, but I'm not confident that a recipient or the postal service would recognize it as a complete address.

It's a shame it's a closed thing now.

While are are not on the topic, anyone want to help me petition our senators to get all U.S. Interstate exits to be numbered by their mile marker rather than sequentially?

Know that exit 32 is at mile marker 32 provides me so much more information than knowing that exit 8 is immediately after exit 7, which could be 1/4 mile past it or 40 miles past it.

Note that linear markers on roads become incorrect when the road is diverted, re-routed or interrupted by new roads. For example, consider a new ring-road constructed to by-pass a town. However, US Interstates have special 3-digit numbering for ring-roads and other connectors.

Luckily for you, America is not building any new infrastructure, so mileposts should be stable for some time.

No new highways is lucky for all of us. Not maintaining the infrastructure you have is a problem, though.

> Know that exit 32 is at mile marker 32 provides me so much more information than knowing that exit 8 is immediately after exit 7, which could be 1/4 mile past it or 40 miles past it.

OTOH you know that exit 8 is the exit which follows exit 7[0], whereas you have no clue whatsoever whether there are other exits between 15 and 32.

[0] except for exit 7B.

That's not any more useful, though, is it, since you don't know the distance between exits 7 and 8?

If you're running low on fuel, and you know you need exit 32, and you come up on exit 15, you don't know if there are any exists between 15 and 32 but you can at least judge whether your car can make it 17 more miles on its fuel.

If you're low on fuel, and you know you need exit 8, and you come up on exit 7, you know it's the last exit before you need to get off the Interstate, but you don't know the distance between exits 7 and 8, so you can't make an informed decision on whether the fuel you have remaining is sufficient to get to your exit.

To be fair, your point is the argument my SO has been battling me with for the past decade :-)

You know you can refuel before the light comes on, right?

It's been required since the 2009 edition of the MUTCD, however there's no deadline for updating existing roads.

Even better: do it in kilometers like Interstate 19:


Of course, this doesn't come without some controversy.

I'm trying to think if there are any iconic roads in Britain, the way that Route 66 is in America. Ireland has the N17 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32-WdYOeJLk). The M1 is pretty famous - it runs up and down the country like a spinal column - but I can't think of any songs. The M25, which goes round London, is known for its traffic jams and gave Orbital their name (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV-hSgL1R74).

How about the A303 ( https://youtu.be/I5g8qlIDUVI )

As featured in the programme "A303: Highway to the Sun" [0]

[0] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0116ly6

I question whether a Kula Shaker song can make a road iconic... :-D

It's not iconic in the same way, but Watling Street is certainly iconic from a historical perspective.


Look back a little, and before the M1 we had the Great North Road https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_North_Road_(Great_Britai..., which I think comes much closer to "iconic" status.

And yes, it appears in songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH1buq3Ks0I

GOOD GOD, Sting! This is even worse than Kula Shaker. Hmm, OK, that's quite a decent song.

Britain's longest road, the A1. Very scenic in places, and can be wild in winter. The BBC even made a series about it [0].

Apropos of the Wikipedia article and out of general interest, any HN'ers closer to the zone 2 roadsign shown than me? (just off the A281 at Partridge Green).

[0] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08qhgf3/episodes/guide

Oh, I recognise that sign! Driven past it a few times, though it's not a regular route for me. But I'm not quite as close as Partridge Green.

I'm not sure they are quite capturing the epic glamour I long for. "Episode 8. Traffic officers track down pedestrians taking a dangerous path alongside the carriageway...."

Not one road, but the NC500 is a famous and popular route.

Perhaps the Cairnwell Pass that has a double hairpin bend that predates the American Revolution


The A689 is the only coast-to-coast road (more or less) - Hartlepool to Carlisle. It runs through the North Pennines and is very scenic in the middle (albeit a little desolate).

Replying to myself here. Someone pointed out that there are plenty of streets in English pop: Penny Lane, Abbey Road, Baker Street...

M62 Song by Doves is a good one

A13 Trunk Road to the Sea by Billy Bragg is another one.

The Isle of Skye is where I learned that an A road was likely the most significant road in the area, not necessarily a large, well-developed one.

A855 is single lane around most of the island. Not a single lane each way, but a single lane with little pullouts every so often to let oncoming traffic past. We drove extremely defensively. However, the scenery was top notch.

Long stretches of the A1 in Northumberland is a single lane each way.

It's an okay system but apathy has resulted in abnormalities, such as the A5-M1 Link Road leaving a bunch of routes in Dunstable out of zone. The A14, as conceived in the 90s, has always started out of zone because that was the easiest two-digit number to steal from another route. Many old A-roads have been chopped into pieces because of motorway replacements or to encourage heavy traffic to use more suitable routes, the end result is a bit of a mess nowadays.

There is, of course, a wikipedia page for this as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalously_numbered_roads_in_...

The ultimate origin is obviously geographic and topographical, as first laid out by the Romans.

The region 4-5 boundary along the A5 is just Watling Street. It originates in London today as Edgware Road, which preserves its distinctive Roman straightness (it even has the faux-Roman Marble Arch at the start in Hyde Park):



The obvious exception is the boundary of the phased Roman invasion, which cuts diagonally from south-west to north-east:


The Fosse Way was originally a military road to support the eponymous barrier 'ditch' and rampart. Now it is mostly (near) the course of the A38 which does not follow the radial region 3 and does not fork from the A3 to the SW of London.

The regions are also approximately the division of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Sussex ( South Saxons, region 2), Wessex ( West Saxons, region 3), Essex ( East Saxons, region 1) and Mercia (er... midlands, for all-the-other-Saxons, regions 3~4):


Watling Street later became the border between Viking and Anglo-Saxon sectors of the island (hence the radical divergence in accents and place names on opposite sides of the road):


Also note that because it is essentially topographical, it was also followed by the private railways, giving LNER (region 1), SR (region 2), GWR (region 3) and LMS (aforementioned Mercia and west coast line, ~ regions 4,5,6), hence the originating stations in London:





P.S. Direct links to Wikipedia should be banned from HN submissions.

> P.S. Direct links to Wikipedia should be banned from HN submissions.

Why? Surely, like every other post, they can be ignored if uninteresting, but they’re usually information many of us haven’t been exposed to and can generate useful additional content...like yours.

The zone diagram at the top of the article makes London's importance pretty clear. All roads (in England and Wales) lead to London.

The radial numbering can be a useful ‘signpost’.

As an anti-invasion tactic during World War II, a civil defence measure was to remove many road signs. That’d stop those nazis in their tracks.

So to this day, I find the UK a difficult country to navigate by signs alone as they are often absent at important local junctions.

In many other parts of the world, you can trace your way from a major destination by signs at forks/exits. In the UK, this often only works on ‘M’otorway routes. With satnav now ubiquitous, much local signposting tends to deplete over time, unless it is to control traffic flow.

I'm pretty certain the road signs were replaced after WW2 - it's not like there's no road signs any more.

This is the opposite of my experience as well - I've driven in many countries (currently live in NZ), and despite its quirks (not saying it's perfect), I've found using UK road numbers for directions very easy in general compared to other countries that have highways that re-use road numbers in multiple states or something, which has at times caused confusion.

This is the opposite of my experience. I often navigate by road signs alone in the UK.

Maybe your experience is from a particular part of the UK where this depletion has happened, but I thought things like direction signage were centrally managed.

I'm with you here - I find the UK much easier to drive around than Spain or Italy, at least.

Before I set out somewhere, I look at a map and scrawl on a piece of paper a list of the roads and junctions I need to use and after a brief familiarisaiton with the route visually, I rely thereafter solely on road signs.

Britain's got great (and beautiful) signage, in my opinion.

Are you native to the UK? (I.e. do you have a good knowledge of the cities and areas you are driving to and passing by?)

Is there a system you are using to navigate / prepare when driving to areas that are new to you? Particularly off motorways?

I'm native to the UK, but I've not found any of the difficulties that you mention in your previous post. I'm 49, so I'm from the pre-sat-nav generation, and I will generally not use one [x] until I get to the city in question, or traffic/isues necessitate it, so I'll navigate from major town to major town to get where I'm going.

I don't find that they will generally disappear from signs (unless you're past them), and I find the system used in the UK very logical.

Also, I don't find the lack of reflectors at the edge of country roads to be an issue - most are delineated by white lines, which means it's easy to see the edges at night. This is not the case in most African countries, and I found driving through Africa at night a challenging, tiring experience because of this, but maybe if you're used to reflectors, it's the same situation just at a different level.

x - I don't think it's good to be babied and feel you need a sat nav for every journey. Since ditching mine (I was a keen user until maybe 3-4 years ago), I've felt much more independent and capable, and happy to drive wherever. I'm sure I'll be in the minority in this opinion, though.

I try to remember to sat nav as much as possible, for the live traffic updates. I also follow the local police force on Facebook as they post road closures due to RTC etc on there.

In the pre-satnav days I would consult a road atlas before the trip, and note the roads, turnings and principal destinations on a piece of paper.

e.g. M1 North to J21 for M69 South M69 South to J2 onto A5 North A5 North for 11 miles to Tamworth turning etc.

Native to the UK and I’ll use signs for navigation both in areas I’m familiar with and those I’m not.

Some examples:

1. I want to go to a show at a popular venue (arena or theatre sized) in an area I know. If I know vaguely where it is, I’ll drive into the city centre and probably meet a one way system and follow the signs for the venue.

2. I want to visit a National Trust property. Head for a major road that runs past it and there will be brown signs that give you the best route to it.

3. Travelling somewhere and decide there is a problem with traffic / the weather and look for a detour. Signs are often perfect for choosing the best roads to head for another waypoint and then the best way from there to where you were originally heading.

I’m not some kind of crazy person who will only navigate by signs - I check things out on maps and put sat nav on, but I know the limitations of all and often the signs send me on the best route.

The people who figure these out and keep them updated are amazing at their job.

In Ireland we just chose to use pubs as landmarks... Made things much simpler. =)

Ireland didn't even have post codes until 2015

leave the package for Paddy behind the bar at The Village Inn :)

I completely agree. Without savnat it would be very hard to navigate in the UK for me. Even with preparation ahead of time. The only useful feature in the UK vs other EU countries I have driven in are compass directions: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST. Some motorways also have reflectors on the lanes to guide you, which is great and I don't remember from Germany at least.

Everything else is weird. Starting from the typography which looks clumsy, to inconsistent signage (which city am I tracking at the moment? Why is it not on the sign anymore?), junction numbers which are sometimes missing, abbreviations of places on signs, directions painted on the tarmac at junctions without signs.

A lot of those A roads go through cities, but are rarely labelled as such. Fully consistent with the patchy signs of street names in cities at junctions and house numbers only present on about 30% of houses, particularly shopfronts.

Not using the E numbers is just the icing on the cake.

Further, driving on the country side is dangerous at night as there are no reflectors on either side of the road.

So I guess you are right. Non-locals are still being kept at bay by the leaky signage traditions of the UK.

If you think driving at night in the UK in the countryside (middle of nowhere) is dangerous, you don't want to do it in Australia or NZ...

At least the UK (on the non-minor roads) has decent "cat's eyes" that reflect light back very well from the car's headlights, as they have actual mirrors in them.

Oz and NZ instead have blocks of plastic embedded in the road instead with a reflective strip on, which in terms of visibility distance is very noticeably poorer (i.e. the reflective power is much less).

Really? Whenever I needed cats eyes in the UK when driving in Scotland (say east Lothian) or peak district they did not exist. I have been looking out for them a few times out of interest, but I could never spot them outside of motorways.

Obviously there will be worse places. But I am comparing the UK to other reasonably densely populated counties in the vicinity.

Just like within British cities, I enjoy having occasionally quirky, inconsistent and unusual routing and signage.

On the whole, modern British road signage is of excellent quality and was globally influential. Little history here: http://www.britishroadsignproject.co.uk/jock-kinneir-margare...

For me, where there are small gaps or occasional quirks it adds to the flavour. I really don't want a rigid grid of apparent perfection imposed over anything. It may be helpful but it is of no cultural value.

> directions painted on the tarmac at junctions without signs

I am from the UK and this makes driving in a new area of the UK very difficult for me. I don’t know if it’s the same in other countries as I’ve never driven in another country.

If the roads are busy then other cars are on top of the direction arrows making it impossible to know which lane to be in when approaching a lot of roundabouts or junctions.

> Starting from the typography which looks clumsy

I think the typography is wonderfully clear, especially that they use lowercase letters for most words. Several other countries use it too.


What exactly is wrong with the typography?

It was specifically designed to be legible at a distance when moving at speed, as well as under poor driving conditions. I think it does that job well, and it's one of the reasons many other countries have adopted it--the letterforms are freely available for anyone to use.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact