Arlington’s Wayfinding Sign Project Update

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David Goodman Tweet us @BikeArlington @BikeArlington November 23, 2015 0 Comments

David is the former Arlington County Bicycle & Pedestrian Programs Manager.

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The addition of wayfinding signs in Arlington helps active commuters and residents travel around Arlington County easier and with more certainty to where they're heading.

Get lost! Considering Arlington’s many disconnected streets and wooded trails, it’s not hard to do. But hopefully not for long. Maybe you’ve noticed the white-on-green signs on the Custis trail and on the streets between Rosslyn and Courthouse? These are bicycle and pedestrian “wayfinding” signs that look like mini highway signs. Wayfinding is a fancy way of describing systems that help people find their way. Makes sense, right?

Arlington has a fairly extensive network of trails and on-street bike routes, but in most places it’s hard to know if you’re on a designated bike route unless you have a bike map with you. And figuring out how to get to somewhere can be even harder unless you’ve committed the route to memory. The new signs are designed to help make those things easier.

wayfinding signs with walker in arlington county

Wayfinding 101

To be helpful, such a signage system has to do two things very well: First, it has to work at multiple scales. That is, it has to help you locate yourself and your destination in the big picture, while also giving you turn-by-turn directions to get to that destination. Second, the system needs to be consistent. In other words, it can’t use one name for a place on some signs, but call it something else on others. (W-L High School vs Washington-Lee?) The signs also shouldn’t guide you towards one destination for miles and then drop it in favor of something else once you get close. (When exactly are you in Cherrydale?)

Fingerboards and blazes

Arlington’s system uses two tools to help keep you oriented at different scales. Fingerboards are the long, skinny signs stacked on top of each other that tell you how far you are from a short list of destinations and what direction they’re in. These are like the “breadcrumbs” that help make sure you never miss your turn. Rather than printing all the destinations onto one fingerboard sign, each destination gets its own fingerboard so they can be easily swapped out without having to reprint the entire sign.
The larger, more prominent “blaze” signs help you understand what direction you’re heading. North/south/east/west orientation doesn’t work so well with Arlington’s skewed, disconnected grids and wiggly worm streets, so these blaze signs use a set of familiar locations to keep you pointed in the right direction. Rosslyn and Ballston represent one pair of on-road coordinates. Chain Bridge and Columbia Pike represent the other. The Custis Trail uses Rosslyn and East Falls Church as its end points. The Four Mile Run Trail corridor uses East Falls Church and Crystal City, with Shirlington functioning as an intermediate endpoint  for the W&OD Trail. The Bluemont Junction Trail Trail uses Ballston and Bluemont Park.

Planners then walk and ride the routes making note of decision points and destinations along the way. The goal is to hit the important locations without over-signing the routes. Sign clutter can be just as annoying as not enough signs, and more costly and complicated to keep up over time. So which places get signs and which don’t? High schools do. Elementary Schools do not. Business districts do. Individual stores do not. Shopping centers? Depends!

Wayfinding installations

All installations are done by Traffic Engineering & Operations field crews–these are the same folks who put up traffic, parking and street name signs. The first signs went in during late winter and early spring of 2013. The combination of multiple fingerboards and occasional blazes on a pole are collectively called a sign assembly. Currently there are about 450 sign assemblies in the ground, and when the planned system is finished by the end of 2016, there will be more than 850 sign assemblies (and 2,500 individual fingerboards!) covering Arlington’s major trails and the Rosslyn to Ballston corridor. Another set of wayfinding signs supporting the Columbia Pike corridor ties into this system as well. Signs in the East Falls Church area also will point towards the City of Falls Church, which recently created its own wayfinding system. So getting lost on your bike in Arlington, unintentionally, at least, is getting harder and harder to do.

With such a complex project mistakes do occasionally happen. If you see a wayfinding sign that seems to have incorrect information, please let us know at:

Photo Credit:

Sam Kittner/

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