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From the mailbag - Trail Rules & Etiquette Signs
On Jan 24, 2013, Laura wrote:

In the short term, it has been requested by some aldermen that our trail have some etiquette signage installed in a couple of places. While the designation of food, drink and restrooms is also being considered, they would like the trail courtesy and etiquette signs up for this spring. Our neighboring town said if we come up with something that looks good, perhaps they would incorporate into their section as well.
Do you have any samples of trail usage signs that you like or have found to be effective? Looking for things like appropriate passing, respect for private property, using recycle cans, riding single file during congested times etc…..

Laura, they don’t work. People want signs so that they can point out what the rules are to people thought to be breaking them.

A lot of the problem is that ALL the rules get put on a sign. Traffic signs do not work this way. “SPEED LIMIT 50 MPH” - just one rule on one sign, not:

  • Speed limit is 50 MPH. Faster drivers will be ticketed!
  • Stay on the right of the road except when passing
  • Use your headlights after sunset
  • Please stop for pedestrians
  • When waved at, wave back. All non-wavers will be ticketed

…and on and on, all in like 14 point type. But agencies install trail signs like this all the time, and no one reads them. You also of course can’t put all the rules that everyone wants each on their own sign - you’d have a trail experience that’s nothing but signs. 

So rules & etiquette signs waste money, returning no value to the trail user experience, or to the towns that install them. Why do roads get away with not putting up a sign with ALL the rules? Because people are taught the rules and etiquette of driving. How to use and share trails isn’t taught.

Better use of money: Use the bike shops, running groups, park districts, community resources (newsletter, mailings, etc) to teach trail use. Incentivize taking a quiz—a free ice cream cone? Our survey work shows that many of the users on a trail are local residents. So an effort in your community to create better trail users would hit a lot of the trail users that others are grumbling about.

If a sign has to go up, pick one rule. Maybe a sign ONLY about passing/being passed:



Could be fun, like the “KEEP CALM/CARRY ON” posters. But wow, no more message than that. In fact, maybe that’s your campaign right there with bike shops, park districts, etc., just getting that one lesson taught.

Getting more consideration between fast & slow trail users would speak to most of the conflicts trails have.

As for issues like dog poop or recycling-only bins, only a sign next to recycling only bins, or next to a doggy bag dispenser would be worth putting up. One sign, one message, with desired action clearly in view.

And then a town can use all the money it saved to make signs helping people find the trail, and inviting trail users to come into town and stay a while! THOSE are signs that return value.

A great sign reference is “Signs, Trails & Wayside Exhibits” from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I refer to it a lot, great guidance and many examples.

One more thing: lots of times, courtesy and rules come up as a response to rising traffic on a trail. When traffic becomes a headache on the road to the mall, we widen the road. Trails return enough value to communities that expanding trails—widening to 12’, building adjacent walking/running paths, building more trails nearby—is just as appropriate a response. In metro areas, trails should be at least 12’ wide (instead of common 8’-10’), and in some places have separate surfaces for biking and running/walking, when they’re first built. We build roads based on the traffic we need/want to accommodate. Trails should be designed and built the same way.

Thanks for the question, Laura. I’m going to post this to my blog. Let me know how else I can help.

Steve Buchtel, Executive Director

Trails for Illinois
1639 Burr Oak Rd.
Homewood, IL 60430
p: 708/365-9365

May your home be your trailhead.

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