Bicycle Trail Signage and Environmental Graphics

Trail Blazers

Guided by the economic downturn, rising gas prices, and the quest for physical fitness, bike trail signage comes of age.

Amid global crises, ongoing war, natural disasters, and the threat of environmental catastrophe, it’s hard to find something to get excited about. But the mere mention of bike trails ignites the flame of passion in those eager to find a solution to some of these problems. And why not? Bike trails are the cost-effective antidote to a number of epidemics, including obesity, inactivity, fossil-fuel dependency, CO2 emissions, even road rage, and can help stimulate economic development, particularly for the slumping real estate market.

“We’re finding that almost every community wants a trail,” says Jeff Olson, partner with Alta Planning (Portland, Ore.), which specializes in bicycle, greenway, and trail design. “The advantage is that it’s relatively low cost, it’s efficient, and people generally enjoy it.” Julie Clark, executive director of the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trail in Traverse City, Mich., adds,” If you want good economic development, make a good trail system,” noting that property values tend to go up along trails, especially in new developments.

Of course, bike trails are only as good as the signage and wayfinding that mark them. Signage not only solves navigational issues, it also enhances safety and security, explains trail etiquette, and promotes a sense of place. In short, signage is one of the keys to a successful bike trail.

Money matters

Building bike trails and implementing impactful sign systems costs money, so who’s paying for them? Funding varies but typically comes from local or state government entities, such as departments of transportation or parks and recreation commissions. With government funds dwindling, however, it can be tough to prove the value of a well-designed wayfinding system, much less one with public art or interpretive signage components. But well-planned bike trails with branded wayfinding systems have shown substantial returns on investment in several cities.

Portland, one of the most progressive U.S. bicycle cities in terms of signing and connections, has invested heavily in its trails and networks over the past 10 years. Olson says the city’s infrastructure, valued at $60 million, is equivalent to building one mile of urban freeway.

Ten years ago, Mayer/Reed (Portland) designed a trail and wayfinding system for a neglected 1.5-mile stretch of riverfront, the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, on the industrial east bank of Portland’s Willamette River. “The client was smart in recognizing that ‘if we build the trail, that doesn’t mean they will come,’ and they were very supportive of how the design features could enhance the project’s success,” says Principal Michael Reed. The designers used landscaping, art, design, and interpretive panels—including 20-ft.-tall steel pylons—to heighten the trail’s visibility. Although the community was initially concerned it would be money misspent, the trail is now used heavily by the downtown working population and bike tours and bike rental companies have been launched as a result.

Economic benefits are not only commercial but also residential. Bruce Hall, a senior landscape architect at AECOM (Orlando), says he sees a natural progression in residential areas when a trail is put in: “First, people with houses that back up to the trail will put up fences. Then, they’ll install gates because they want to use the trail. Later, when their homes are for sale, they use the trail as a selling point.”

In Winter Park, Fla., development of the West Orange trail next to an active rail line and through the downtown area provided a major economic boost. AECOM planned the streetscape, not only to improve the aesthetic in the business district, but also to relocate the bike trail once the railroad was no longer in use. Designers used historic references, including tile mosaics that suggest the character of packing houses and citrus groves, and signs that played off the architectural character of the historic railroad.

“As soon as the public was aware of the trail development, we saw property values double overnight,” says Jonathan Mugmon, wayfinding studio leader at AECOM. Once the streetscape was installed, bike stores and restaurants opened, a theater was renovated, and people started driving up from Orlando to use the trail.

Safety and security

Although economic development is a happy outcome of well-signed bike trails, safety and security are the primary raisons d’etre for bike trail signage. As Olson puts it, “People want to be able to move, but safely.” To this end, Alta developed the Urban Bikeway Design Guide for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which documents wayfinding innovations from the past decade. To tackle urban right-of-way issues, for example, shared-lane marking arrows (“sharrows”) are painted on the asphalt to designate bike lanes on roadways. The “bike box” solves right-of-way issues at intersections. A stop line before the pedestrian walk sign is filled with color to create a visible stopping space so that bicyclists are in front of cars, and pedestrians are in front of bicyclists. In Berlin, where bike paths are on sidewalks, the bike trail is delineated through patterns and colors.

On non-urban trails, especially those that run through natural environments, signage employs new technology to help first responders locate trail users in an emergency. For example, for a bike trail in Mammoth, Calif., Alta specified GPS-based “rescue locator” signs to appear at regular intervals so that if people need help, they can call 9-1-1 and provide their exact location.

Other safety and security issues are more specific to individual trails. For example, the Mecklenburg County Greenway in Charlotte, N.C., is designed around the flood plain, and all the trails run along a creek. “The trail can flood in about 20 minutes, so people need to know when there’s danger, where to go, and how to escape,” explains Mark Vanderklipp, president of Corbin Design (Traverse City, Mich.), which designed signage for the greenway. Designers specified strategically placed color-coded red “flood zone” signs with clear iconography, as well as red “escape route” signs that indicate with an arrow which way to go in case of flooding.

Trail sign basics

Bike trail signage runs the gamut from the basic—where the trail starts, where it ends, and mile markers—to the more complex—multilingual signage, interpretive graphics, and fold-up maps that help people get from one trail to another. A well-planned signage system takes into consideration the information bikers and pedestrians will need and who will use it, whether locals, tourists, or both.

Some elements of bike trail wayfinding are de rigeur, including rules of conduct: keep dogs on a short leash, what to do/who to call if you see an obstacle, say "on your left" when approaching pedestrians. Mile markers are also important. The challenge, however, is determining how to mark the segments of the trail. In Charlotte, after getting the community involved in the discussion, Corbin Design determined the zero point of each trailhead, with subsequent mile markers denoting mileage from that point. Where trail segments intersect, guide signage clarifies distances. For the Miami-Dade trail in Florida, mile markers correspond to highway mile markers for 9-1-1 usage.

To ensure consistency, keep costs down, and cope with stop-and-go funding, many designers have developed a signage kit of parts. For the 150-kilometer-long Moreton Bay Cycleway on Australia’s east coast, signage will be rolled out over five years. Dotdash(Brisbane/Sydney) used a simple kit of signs, including an identifier, a branded color scheme, and information for cyclists, which can be applied as specific sections of the MBC are completed. “The signs are intended to be ‘cheap and cheerful,’” says Mark Ross, principal of dotdash. “The sign construction is simple and cost-effective, as different manufacturers may produce the signage over time.”

What’s art got to do with it?

Incorporating public art into bike trail sign systems is not always factored into the budget. Mugmon says, “Often, the client has a timeline and wants the project done quickly, and public art slows things down.” But Olson advocates integrating art into the design, even if it’s as simple as a railing detail, something etched into the pavement, or public seating. On the Grand Canyon Greenway, Alta commissioned Native Americans to create custom-designed benches using locally harvested wood. For the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, public art was included in the budget through a percent-for-art program, and Mayer/Reed worked with artists at Rigga to install four large sculptures that use historic artifacts and existing site features where possible.

Art installations can be effective and inspirational without breaking the budget. When signing a bike trail along the Tagus River in Lisbon, Nuno Gusmão, principal of P-06 Atelier (Lisbon), wanted to improve the area along the river. In addition to installing wayfinding-oriented graphic “incisions” in the asphalt to indicate the trail’s path, the P-06 team created thematic installations that make abandoned surfaces part of the trail. A poem by Portuguese poet Alberto Caeiro about the Tagus River is stenciled onto a pier, while an onomatopeic installation minimizes traffic noise under a bridge. “I see EGD projects as a continuation and improvement of the surroundings to achieve a clean, appealing, fun, and functional result,” Gusmão says.

Moving forward

There’s no question that bike trails are good for cities, providing an alternative to driving, building connections within a city, and creating opportunities to impart a sense of history. And well-planned wayfinding systems are a key component to a trail’s success.

“People get why it’s important to have signage out there, and one of our biggest requests is that we need more signage because it makes people feel more comfortable,” notes Clark. The biggest challenge is building consensus and funding for these projects. But Clark for one is optimistic: “We have come a long way, and we’ve got a ways to go, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”

--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011

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