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Arlington trail signs improve wayfinding, mostly

Arlington has started installing the first of the 250 "wayfinding" signs it has planned along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. They are part of a comprehensive plan that will include hundreds of signs across the county.

All images by the author.

The first signs are a big improvement over the non-existent or outdated signs currently along the trails. They can still be better, and hopefully the county will learn from the first ones and from comments regular trail users.

My past reviews of trail signs have mostly been negative because they either did not exist or did not function well. The new signs are better, but they still have a few issues.

This map shows the locations of the 3 signs reviewed here.

The sign at the top right is mounted on the sound wall at the entrance of the trail. The signs now list the name of the trail, a vast improvement over ones in the past which pointed towards destinations but failed to tell you which trail you were on.

Now someone who gets directions online or from a friend that say to "turn right on the Custis Trail" will have confidence they are at the right place when they reach the trail entrance.

This spot has always been confusing because both directions look like the trail. This sign helps, but it should also indicate that the Custis Trail continues to the left.

The East Falls Church distance indicator in the sign at the top was accidentally swapped with the one on this sign. The soundwall sign is actually closer to East Falls Church than this sign, but says it is 0.1 miles farther away.

This sign presents two specific problems but also offers an example of how future signs can improve further.

First, the word "THRU" is unclear. Is there a difference between the word "THRU" and a straight arrow? If so, it's difficult to tell what that is.

If not, a straight arrow would be clearer, and it would be more consistent with the directional arrows used elsewhere. The County may have already recognized the possible confusion since, as of yesterday morning, the word "THRU" had been blacked over on at this particular sign.

Second, Washington-Lee High School is not a useful destination to a vast majority of trail users. I would guess that only a small portion of cyclists and pedestrians passing this point are going to Washington-Lee High School.

Maybe it was necessary to have a directional sign for Washington-Lee High School to meet Safe Routes to School objectives. But if that's the case, then it should be at the connector to 15th St North near North Taylor and at the Quincy St connector, the exit points from the trail to the school.

At this location, the sign should have a more general location like "Clarendon" or, better yet, Washington, DC. Probably more than a quarter of trail users at this point are headed to the District. Yet, Arlington staff have told me that Washington, DC will appear on very few of the signs even though it is one of the most common destinations, especially for weekday commuters.

Finally, these problems raise a larger question: why weren't any of these issues resolved prior to posting the signs? Arlington hired a supposedly top notch contractor to do this. They spent a lot of time and money developing a comprehensive plan. I'm very active in the cycling community, yet I never heard anything about them soliciting user input on this sign system.

Before the next signs are finalized, Arlington and their contractor should make better effort to gather input and feedback from the trail users and the general public. In the future they should:

  • Get on the DC online bike forums to ask the community about challenging intersections and common destinations
  • Present at the Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings to seeking local knowledge; and
  • Have a presence out on the trails, to talk with the actual trail users and get their input.
These are simple tactics to gather information. It's hard to say definitively, but I'm not aware that they engaged local users other than the Arlington County staff. Aren't these the kinds of things for which a Bicycle Advisory Committee exists?

To be sure, the new signs is are a fantastic improvement over the previous state. But hopefully Arlington can learn from first ones and apply those lessons as the program expands.

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver. 


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Also, why all caps? The new FHWA guidelines call for mixed case, as they're SO much easier to read.

by Joey on Mar 30, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

A great step in the right direction, hopefully the W&OD and MV trails will do this as well.

by WFY on Mar 30, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

Agree that "Thru" is both confusing and useless. It would actually be better to have "Rosslyn 3.5" than "Rosslyn Thru 3.5," in the event that there's some reason a straight arrow doesn't work.

Disagree about "Washington, DC" as a destination, however. Part of it is a question of the philosophy of who these signs are designed to help: the overwhelming majority of trail users in Ballston headed all the way to DC are probably regular users (if not commuters) who aren't in particular need of assistance from wayfinding signs. In this regard, Washington-Lee HS is a good choice for the sign because: 1) a fair number of casual users are likely to be going there for events, activities, maybe to use the public swimming pool, etc.; and 2) the wayfinder is helping those users to know that the better way to go at this junction is to keep following the trail. Without the sign, at least some casual users would end up exiting the trail at this point and following a route through Ballston rather than sticking to the trail. In contrast, not many people will be confused at this point about whether to stay on the trail or to exit to get to "Washington, DC." (I wonder if "Clarendon" was considered and rejected because of ambivalence over whether it would be better to exit or stay on the trail to get there).

Also, providing distances to "Washington, DC" won't be particularly helpful on wayfinders. Would that measure the distance to the border? To the "zero mile" marker at the Ellipse? The Capitol? And how would you know?

A distance to the border isn't very useful for these signs in Arlington, because it really isn't much different than a distance to Rosslyn, and it's not really anyone's destination. And a distance given to any particular location inside the city will suffer from the same problem as the distance to Washington-Lee HS -- not many people will be going there, or even going past there.

by Arl Fan on Mar 30, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

A lot of students walk or bike the trails to school. While locals know the routes, the sign is informative to new students, and others that may live away from the trail but could benefit from it. Arlington has always listed schools on its bike trail signs, as it helps to identify the trail's route for those unfamiliar with it.

Also W-L has become much more than a school since the new building was constructed. As a community and recreation center, it's bike racks are filled not just during school hours. It is a landmark and a destination and serves many civic functions.

by JP on Mar 30, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport

There's more to wayfinding signage for bicycling than strictly directional signage.



by Richard Layman on Mar 31, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

Pretty unhelpful for those of use who have stopped waiting and converted to the Metric system on our bike computers.

by futurist on Apr 2, 2012 9:18 am • linkreport

The first five of 250 new wayfinding signs for trails were installed last week as part of a test installation to evaluate the signs' overall readability and appearance. This is Arlington's first venture into detailed wayfinding and with all new programs we plan to review and assess with each step.

County staff announced the wayfinding project in 2011, and provided presentations to Arlington's Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) and area civic associations. Residents are invited to visit our project webpage (visit; search "Wayfinding") for more information. Updates will continue to be provided to the BAC and on the project webpage.

Once the test phase is completed and feedback has been reviewed, the remaining planned 250 signs will be installed in phases throughout the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. The County will explore locations for future wayfinding signage along bicycle and pedestrian routes in other areas of the County. We welcome feedback and suggestions for future locations. Please visit the project webpage and click on the "Feedback" button.

Wayfinding Signs:

by Arlington County Department of Environmental Services on Apr 3, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

Define "Washington, DC." From the parking lot at Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Navy and Marine Memorial, and Gravelly Point, Washington, DC is a stone's throw away. If you're going to note distances, you've got to pick a spot. Ballston is a few square blocks, so you can pick a spot in the middle of Ballston and you'd only be off a couple of blocks. You can't really do that with DC.

by onjulic on Apr 5, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

the problem with the ballston sign is that there is no sign at the actual turn off to Ballston, so the sign .6 of a mile before is somewhat puzzling. I assume a sign for Ballston will be added in the next phase.

All the signage for the connections between the Custis, 4 mile run and W&OD trails, and side trails near the EFC metro and the new development, are puzzling to someone coming through for the first time (like me). Some of that I think is in City of Falls Church. What would really help would be an oocassional trailside map, that also shows connections. The map at Gateway Park in City of Fairfax off the Accotink trail is pretty good, IIRC.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 21, 2012 6:53 pm • linkreport

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