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Austin misses goal of having direction signs on all urban trails

Wayfinding trail on Northern Walnut Creek trail. The right side of the sign has a map of the entire trail with a "You are here" indicator. The left side shows the distance to the Balcones District Park Trailhead, which is 0.4 miles. The left side of the sign says that would take 2.5 minutes to bike or 8 minutes to walk. The left side of the sign also has the distance and travel times to Walnut Creek Metro Park.
Patricia Lim
A new sign on the Northern Walnut Creek trail includes travel times along with a map and indicator of where you are on it. Austin City Council set a goal to have these kinds of directional signs installed on 100% of urban trails by 2022.

Austin failed to install directional signs — also known as wayfinding — on all urban trails by 2022, a specific target outlined in the city's far-reaching transportation strategy.

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan(ASMP) was adopted unanimously by the City Council in 2019. The ASMP — two years in the making, involving the input of thousands of Austinites — is supposed to guide city officials on everything from land use and parking to sidewalks and aviation.

The plan has almost 300 specific goals to reach over 20 years. But only one objective specifically lists 2022 as the completion date: installing wayfinding elements on 100% of existing urban trails.

Austinites value urban trails. Since 2016, voters have approved more than $100 million in city debt to build more of the wide, paved, multiuse paths that connect with on-street bikeways and sidewalks. Each new mile of urban trail costs up to $4 million, including wayfinding.

Runners, walkers and cyclists on the MoPac pedestrian bridge in March 2020. Above them is the bottom of the car bridge. On either side are grey, steel railings. One woman is pushing a baby stroller. Most people are wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
The MoPac pedestrian bridge is part of Austin's 60-mile network of urban trails.

The signs help people navigate the publicly funded system. Hikers trekking along nature trails or mountain bikers shredding through the woods, for example, might pop out onto a paved urban trail and not know where they are.

Smartphones have maps. But not everyone has a smartphone. Some people don't want to stare at a screen while on a walk. Signal strength isn't always great. Cyclists have limited use of their hands while riding.

"I like signs," said Chris Coxwell, who was riding her bike along the Southern Walnut Creek Trail, which does have wayfinding. "I think signs are good. They tell you where you are, what's coming up."

An image from a City of Austin presentation shows the difference between wayfinding signs and mile markers on the Southern Walnut Creek trail. The wayfinding sign includes a map and is about twice as wide.
City of Austin
An image from a city of Austin presentation showing the difference between wayfinding signs and mile marker signs on the Southern Walnut Creek trail.

But the person who leads the four-person Urban Trails Program couldn't say off the top of her head how many of its 60 miles of urban trails have the handy directional signs with maps and travel times to various destinations.

"It's a target that we want to hit if we had all the resources and capacity available to us," Katie Wettick said. "But I think that there's other stronger measures of success, especially with the focus on projects and getting more trail infrastructure in the ground."

Wettick says since 2014 — when the first Urban Trail Plan was adopted — the city has added some 30 miles of urban trails, or about half the existing network. Those 30 miles include some shared-use paths along highways that connect to the larger trail system.

When new pieces of trail are built, wayfinding is added to that segment and the stretches of trail next to it. Wettick says wrapping the wayfinding into a larger project makes more efficient use of bond dollars.

"I think it's a question of making sure that we're putting wayfinding where people need it, where it really is useful, and not just trying to hit this arbitrary 100% goal," she said.

More signs will be going in on the Shoal Creek Trail in the coming months. But Country Club Creek Trail, which has a mile-long gap, won't get wayfinding until construction starts on a missing segment in about a year.

A mile marker sign on the Shoal Creek Trail. The sign says, "Mile 2.0" at the top and has a small map beneath.
Nathan Bernier
A mile marker sign on the Shoal Creek Trail. Wayfinding signs typically provide more information like travel times to key destinations or bigger maps. Wayfinding signs should be going in along the Shoal Creek Trail in the coming months.

Austin is taking public comments on a new plan to guide urban trail-making for years to come. One action item in the proposal calls for developing a wayfinding plan for all existing and proposed urban trails.

You can give your feedback on the draft plan until March 20.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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