All images by the author.

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.

The first signs are a big improvement over the non-existent or outdated signs currently along the trails.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.