Rethinking Trail Signage

Not long ago my sister from Los Angeles was visiting me in Arlington VA, and wanted walking directions to a coffee shop. She didn't mind taking a longer walk, so I recommended one about 2.5 miles away that she would enjoy. The shortest and most pleasant way to walk there included sections of bike trails. I found that giving her directions to be really difficult. Everything had to be described in great detail ("After about 600 yards you'll pass under a street overpass. Then I think the next trail off to your right is the one you want. I'm not sure there's a sign, but look to your left and you'll see a marshy area.") Eventually I printed out an Internet map for her to take with her.

Anytime I have tried to give people directions to my house via the trail (which is the easiest way to get to my house from the Metro), I find it challenging to describe where they exit the trail to get to my street. Once on the streets, though, it's easy, because there are street signs at every corner. Once, in fact, I gave my wife directions to a friend's house. Once on the trail, though, one of my descriptions was not quite accurate and she got nervous she was going the wrong way. So she bailed out and walked on the streets, which added about a 1/2 mile to her walk but gave her confidence she knew she was in the right place.

Another example: several months ago I wanted to identify a way to get to my daughter's dance studio by using the trails. There are numerous connectors in South Arlington off the 4-Mile Run and W&OD trails--all unmarked. The only way I could do it was trial and error--trying each one to see if it went where I needed to go. I had to spend more than 20 minutes of time just figuring out which trail was which and mapping out my route. If each of those connectors had a sign identifying the street it connected to, it would have been much easier. Even now that I know it, I would still have an enormously difficult--if not impossible--time trying to describe to someone how to take my route.

I am pleased that we have a number of trails and constantly improving system for cyclists and pedestrians to use. More and more these amenities are used for transportation as well as recreation. However, if they are truly going to serve us as transportation facilities, they need more effective signage. Signs on trails now generally direct us to another place without identifying where we are (e.g., --> to Custis Trail; <--to Shirlington, etc.). Often it's difficult to identify the name of the trail you are on. This makes it hard to give people directions. I can't tell someone, "Go down to the end of the street and turn left on the W&OD trail," because there is no sign identifying it as the W&OD at that intersection. So I'm reduced to trying to describe it instead. The other day I rode my bike down to Alexandria and took the new bike path across the Wilson Bridge. It was tricky to find, because there are no directional signs to get you there. Why is it that bike and pedestrian facilities are built without signage being included in the budget? Are signs expected to be some sort of special additional feature? Can you imagine if that were the case for the Wilson Bridge project itself? They built the bridge but did not budget anything for signage?! Absurd. Yet that is the MO for trails. Evidently trail users are just supposed to "know" where the trail goes and how to get on and off it at the right places without help.

In urban areas, and where trails are useful transportation links, signage should be placed just like it is on streets. Each trail should have an identifiable name and every intersection should have a sign with the names in both directions--just like street signs. Discontinuous trails (like the extraordinarily confusing "Four Mile Run Trail") should be broken into parts with each part given a distinct name to avoid confusion. Trails should also only have one name (problem; there are parts of the W&OD that are also the Four Mile Run Trail and parts that are also the Custis Trail; a part of 4-Mile Run is also called Barcroft Trail. . .and I even saw a sign the other day that said "Anderson Bikeway," along 4-Mile Run, whatever that is).

Signage needs to be maintained and updated as changes and improvements are made. The final section of the W&OD in Bluemont Park was completed in 2002, yet the sign at the intersection of the Bluemont Junction trail does not even identify the trail--seven years later.

Good signage cannot be considered a special, additional benefit of bike/pedestrian infrastructure, but needs to be integrated into the system, just like it is for streets: included in budgets, replaced and repaired when necessary, and updated when changes are made. Not only is this an issue of equity with users of other transportation modes, but it will also serve to increase the likelihood that people will use trails for transportation.

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