If someone stops you in the street to ask for directions, do you say “go x miles down that road and go left” or do you say “go x kilometres down that road and go left”? Which sounds better? Which sounds more natural to say?

In this post I look at the humble mile, making the case for keeping it, and explore ways we can modernise it. This is following on from my previous How to Hang on to your Stones post, where I looked at re-aligning traditional units in more round metric values. In this post, I will look at how this could be implemented for distances on road signs, maps, navigation systems etc.

Why keep miles?

I’ve rattled on about this in previous posts, but in summary the reason I believe we should keep miles and yards is mostly because they sound better and roll off the tongue easier. Why does this matter? Well, in a lot of cases it doesn’t (like in science, maths or other professional use) but when you’re talking about everyday life – I think it is worthwhile using words to describe things that roll off the tongue easy and seem more natural to pronounce. Remember that kilometre is pronounced kill-o-metre, which sounds even worse than the common mispronunciation kill-om-e-ter

Another reason is because it’s part of our history and culture. We’ve been using miles for centuries, ever since the Romans invented it – and we even sing songs about them! This isn’t a reason in itself to keep the mile, but it’s a valid consideration.

I do think the bigger mile is a more useful size than a kilometre, but maybe that’s just me. There is a group in the US called Bring Back the Mile that reckons that the mile is a better size than km and is an “ideal fitness distance for everybody”, see more here.

What are the disadvantages of using miles?

How many yards in a mile? Probably a question that stumps a lot of people. The answer is that actually, the version of the mile we use today is/was not commonly subdivided into yards, it is subdivided into 8 furlongs. We no longer use the furlong (except for in horse racing) so should we be using yards instead? If so, 1760 (the number of yards in a mile) is not a nice, easily divisible or easy to remember number.

What size should the mile and yard be?

I think if we are to keep the mile and yard it should be adjusted slightly to make it easier to divide up and easier to convert to/from metric. In my last post, I looked at the idea of ‘redefining’ the yard as exactly 900mm and rounding the mile to 1800 yds, making it 1.62km exactly in metric (represents about a 0.66% increase in the size of the mile). This is a nicer number as you can halve, quarter and third it to fairly round numbers (¾ = 1350, ⅔ = 1200, ½ = 900, ⅓ = 600, ¼ = 450). Halves and thirds work well, maybe the quarters are not so nice – but still pretty good over all.

Another option would be to make the yard equivalent to 1 metre. If we did that, the words yard and metre would then basically be two different words that mean exactly the same thing. You could then redefine the mile to 1600 yards, making it 1.6km in metric (a 0.58% decrease in size). This divides up nicely into halves, quarters and eights (¾ = 1200, ½ = 800, ¼ = 400) but doesn’t work well with thirds – although I don’t think thirds of miles are really used on road signs. This has the advantages of;

  • Easy conversion. Obviously yards and metres are interchangeable, and which word you use would depend on the context (e.g. roadsigns, football and golf might call them yards whereas engineers and other sports like athletics would call them metres). Also, conversion between mile and kilometre would be easier.
  • 1600 is a number that is easier to divide up by halves and quarters and easier to remember.

The disadvantage would be in the fact that there would no longer be exactly 3 feet in a yard, it would be 3’4″ (40″, assuming an inch of 25mm).

Keeping the yard equivalent to the metre, you could even just round the mile down to 1500 yards/metres (1.5km). This would make it even easier to convert between miles and kilometres. Dividing up by halves and quarters is not so nice, but you can third it nicely. This version of a ‘metric mile‘ already exists in track running and swimming. In fact, 1.6km is also sometimes referred to as a metric mile.

You could also of course totally butcher the poor old mile and change it to just be another word for a kilometre, but that would be just silly.

What do you think?

Kilometres or miles? Stay the same or change? Everything has it’s advantages and disadvantages (including metric and imperial units) so I guess I’m trying to weigh up both and figure out which is best for which scenario. Maybe we could use miles for road signs and in conversation and kilometres for science, engineering and any international communication? Whatever the case, your thoughts are welcome!

Miles better