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Leicester songlines

Martin Rieser is helping to map a city to encourage ‘green’ transport

In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology – from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines

Songlines is an innovative project to develop personalised mobile maps for cycling and walking (initially in Leicester), through public collaboration. The next stage is to provide participant-generated art and information for the cyclists en route, as an incentive to abandoning the car for short city journeys.

Cycling in Leicester is a challenge, partly because of the divisive ring road structure. But in general there is far less cycling and walking in urban centres in Britain than in comparable countries across Europe. Scandalously, cycling accounts for only 0.6 per cent of the total distance travelled per person per year. 

Social interactions

The project depends on communication media bound to a location (known as locative media). They are digital media applied to real places and thus triggering real social interactions. Mobile technologies such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for mobile phones support and enable the locative.  As an artist and communicator, my initial interest in using this emergent space was as a creative practitioner. The development of Songlines reflects a dual use of technology for collective utilitarian mapping and as a platform for socially generated artworks.

This is how it would work in practice: a Leicester cyclist wanting to go from De Montfort University to Evington Park could either enter the postcode of Evington Park on a mobile phone, or mark the destination with a pin, or login online and download a map with directions. They could also download podcast descriptions of real landmarks and hazards en route, which would be triggered automatically by GPS when the cyclist passed that point. Artworks commissioned from the public, ranging from music to narratives, would be accessed in the same manner. They could be consumed en route as audio pieces and cyclists would be encouraged to stop at waypoint features to view video or image-based pieces. Designed for both walkers and cyclists, the interface emphasis is on safety and ease of use.

Technological potential

Satnav systems tend to reduce our world to roads between A and B. The specific tagging potential of the locative can overlay this reductive idea of space with all the richness of personal experience.

The Songlines project is innovative in the way it depends on the engagement of its users to build up digital resources in databases of local route maps, and in its delivery of directions to a mobile audience.


In early 2001 we launched a call for artworks in the form of site-specific sound works (poetry, music, narratives) to enhance the most trusted routes.

These artworks will all be relevant to specific landmarks and locations on the proposed routes. This may include texts, verbal responses, oratory, street talk, rap, and virtual visual layers overlaying the landscape, including virtual sculptures and animations. It is intended to make this work available to disabled users and to all age ranges, creating a very wide audience potential.

A successful pilot will be of great interest to Sustrans, the charity that enables people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of our daily the journeys. It is monitoring progress carefully for future adoption.

A grant from De Montfort University’s transport team and support from the city council has enabled the project.

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Professor Martin Rieser
Professor Martin Rieser researches at De Montfort University’s Institute of Creative Technologies, where new ideas bridging between disciplines can be tested experimentally
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