Case Study 2: Hyattsville

In my last post, I went on quite a bit about connections between communities and effective wayfinding networks. There’s a really great illustration of these points just south of the UMCP campus in the City of Hyattsville.

IMG_2394The wayfinding network is great. In many ways, it’s an exemplar of what these networks should be in suburban environments. Intersections are signposted to eliminate navigational confusion; signs lead naturally to other signs like bread crumbs; routes take the path of least stress around hills and busy streets; signs note linkages to other major routes; directions to transit links, like Metro stations, include their unique logotypes; signs are visible and frequent enough to clearly communicate the message that, if you are walking or riding, these streets and sidewalks are for you and that cars should expect your presence.

IMG_2408There’s room for improvement (as always)—I would like to see distances in either miles or blocks (like nearby Brentwood does), as well as references made to specific points (“Adelphi & Queen’s Chapel”) rather than to things like neighborhoods (“Artway North” is fairly ambiguous—which end of the neighborhood will I find myself at? If distances are included, is the distance to the edge of the neighborhood, or some central point within it?)—but these are comparatively minor. There are also one or two missing signs at a few key intersections, but a rider can usually follow the sharrows to stay on the route. It’s a bit disruptive to have to switch from one semiotic language and pattern to another while trying to get to work early and watching for cross traffic, but, on the big list of things, it’s not the worst.

The Worst is that nobody knows about any of this. How would they? None of the surrounding jurisdictions—University Park, Riverdale, Riverdale Park, or North Brentwood—have wayfinding networks that link up with Hyattsville’s. The fastest way from College Park into DC, one that completely avoids Route 1 except to cross it at the College Park/University Park border, passes along a signed route when in Hyattsville, but, unless you know where to turn in College Park and cross over an 8-lane SHA Stroad from Hell, you’ll never find it.

I’d biked in the area for years before finding out about the Josh Route (scroll down to the section with the maps for more). People who have been riding for longer, including a few I’ve learned this whole suburban infrastructure and advocacy game from, don’t even know there are signs in Hyattsville, much less good ones. A long-distance wayfinding route is useless if it only exists for a two-mile stretch in one community and requires a counterintuitive and unsigned road crossing to access.

IMG_2380It doesn’t help that the best way into town from the north doesn’t connect with the wayfinding network. I mean, given that the midsection of the Trolly Trail is closed off while Whole Foods takes its sweet time with building out a largely auto-centric development, it doesn’t really connect with itself, but still. I suspect it’s as much a “who has jurisdiction over this piece of land” headache as anything else, but, on a very bike and pedestrian friendly route that’s been great so far for local businesses—the owner of the brewpub and curiosity shop at the end of the trail has gone from being an opponent of bike infrastructure to installing yet more bike racks, partially because of how his business has turned into a hub and hangout for local cyclists—I’d like to see more signs for businesses and attractions just off the trail. The trail is isolated from the community only by inaction and design choices; harnessing the power of a transit route that parallels a main street like US 1 would be easy.

Harder, though, is forming the kind of political coalition that could create effective wayfinding routes across multiple jurisdictions, following a universal set of standards for iconography, design, and semiotics. While the Anacostia Trails Heritage Association (ATHA) comes close to this, their mandate is primarily to serve visitors and education, not transit networks. Granted, ATHA signs are sometimes the best guides along trails in the region, but they often tend to direct you to points of historical or cultural interest, rather than, say, the next part of a bike route or commercial districts. Not to say those are always different, mind you; just that ATHA’s purpose is not necessarily one directed primarily at making transit easier.

They do a pretty good job at it, mind you. ATHA may be the closest thing to a regional, trans-jurisdictional body that gets what the big deal is with wayfinding, bike routes, and transit cycling.

IMG_2412In any case, though, we’ll need some form of a coalition of several local and regional governments and stakeholders, and commitments from all of them to complete this network. It’s a form of catherding, really, for a goal that might not be immediately tangible to many, or look like a luxury for a few fitness freaks rather than an issue of affordable transit for all. What ATHA (or even East Coast Greenway, responsible for DC’s Bestest Single Wayfinding Sign) was and is able to do from tourism, recreation, and education points of view we need to do from the standpoint of transit.

Maybe this gets into a question of how our society views cycling—why is recreation an easier sell than transit?—but there has to be a way to build the political will to create safe, low-stress, and effective transit routes for all. It’s an issue of justice, not merely of convenience, born of a need to create connections between people and opportunities elsewhere, a desire to see that nobody is denied a chance to participate in the community simply because we design our towns and cities around the needs of our tools, and no longer our fellow human beings.

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