Sign, Sign, Everywhere a (New) Sign

Editors: This story was originally published in Issue 157 of our quarterly Tube Times magazine, one of many perks of membership in the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Where the heck is Bike Route 50, anyway? (It’s Market Street, actually.)

With the rollout of new wayfinding signage for people who bike, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) is acknowledging that destinations and distances guide bike riders far more than obscure bike route numbers familiar to only the most experienced pedallers.

“The existing route-based wayfinding signs might work well for expert cyclists, but we aimed for the new signs to work better for everyone,” Jamie Parks, a transportation planner with the SFMTA, said.

Jamie is the SFMTA’s lead planner on capital projects related to biking. Along with project manager Dan Provence, Jamie is coordinating the City’s design and placement of 1,200 signs across San Francisco over the next two years. There are just over 10 in place presently, mainly around the Inner Sunset.

“The Inner Sunset has several parallel bike routes and required turns, making it an ideal area to pilot the new signs,” Dan said. “It’s also a funnel point due to topography, so it’s particularly popular for people biking.”

Before a pilot could be tested, however, planners surveyed the lessons learned from wayfinding signage elsewhere.

“We started this project by researching current standards and best practices, looking at wayfinding signage in Portland, Chicago, Berkeley, Oakland and other cities,” Dan said. “Those findings helped inform what information we would present and how to present it clearly and most helpfully for people biking.”

Their hard work paid off: The new, easy-to-understand look of the signs is a big improvement for people biking. For planners, however, the bigger puzzle was determining where the signs are posted and what they convey. And that puzzle had to come together for all 1,200 signs, most of which are unique.

“The general framework we adopted was to provide people with breadcrumbs leading them generally from afar, then more specifically as they approach a given destination,” Jamie said.

“Take for instance, ‘downtown.’ That might be a helpful direction to offer someone biking in the Panhandle, but once they approach the Tenderloin, they need more detail.”

“It’s a complex art of trying to give people on bikes as much information as possible while also leading them to larger city destinations,” Dan added. “We tried to be as specific with our locations as possible while still offering useful information to people biking from some distance.”

For example, the SFMTA decided not to direct people to the Bayview, generally, but more specifically to the Bayview Public Library, offering both precision and the general direction of the neighborhood. The same goes for signs directing folks to Forest Hill Station, Civic Center and many other landmarks across San Francisco.

“For each sign, we needed to get an exact location of both the sign and an agreed upon destination along the bike network,” Dan said. “Every sign could be cause for discussion, including about what makes for a conservative estimate for how long it takes to get from point A to point B.”

As anyone who bikes San Francisco knows, our city’s hills have a way of impacting how long a given distance can take to ride.

“In Portland, planners just decided that an estimated time of arrival would be determined based on an assumed speed of 10.8 miles per hour for every single sign across the city,” Dan said. “We knew that that just wasn’t going to work here. So we’ve done a lot of riding around.”

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