Tagwayfinding

Wayfinding signs at Van Buren Street Metra station are incomplete

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

“B” marks a new bus boarding area near the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station.

The Regional Transportation Authority has spent $2 million to improve wayfinding between CTA, Metra, and Pace train stations and bus stops in a needed effort to connect newbies and long-time residents to their next transfer.

Some of the signs need to show better information, though. The RTA installed signs at the Van Buren Street Metra Electric station at Michigan Avenue that create “bus loading groups,” similar to bus bays at suburban park & rides.

It works like this: you come across the nearest bus stop – I happened upon boarding area B – hoping to find the route you need. Instead, though, that route stops at boarding area A. The sign at boarding area B points you in the direction of A and from where you stand you can see a sign that identifies A.

RTA’s signs have two issues. First, they don’t tell you that boarding area C is across the street – unless you inspect the small map – and instead point you in the direction of A (from B). If you walk in the direction of the arrow from boarding area B you will not run into boarding area C or a sign that tells you where to cross the street in order to access C.

The first issue creates the second problem: by reading and relying upon the sign’s text you can’t know at which boarding area, A or C, you should board a bus route that stops at both boarding areas. (Those who also study the maps on another side of the sign will have better luck.) That’s because the same route operates in both directions and if you’re not familiar with the route, you won’t know which direction takes you towards your destination.

New RTA interagency transfer signage near Van Buren Street Metra Electric station

Both boarding areas A and C will get you on the 3, 4, J14, and 26, but only the map on the other side tells you which direction they go. Also, while the arrow points in the direction of boarding areas A and C, only the map tells you that A is across the street.

The fix seems an easy one. First, point the arrows on A and B across the street instead of north or south towards B or A, and add an intermediary sign along the walking path that communicates that “boarding area C is across the street.” Then, update the signs to indicate which direction the bus routes are going so that travelers are assured they need to visit C across the street for King Drive buses going towards Bronzeville or A for King Drive buses going toward Streeterville.

The RTA has installed other signage in this program at 95th and Western (CTA & Pace), Joliet Union Station (Metra & Pace), and Davis Station in Evanston (CTA, Metra, & Pace).

Suburbia wayfinding

An unfortunate part of living in the suburbs and only ever traveling to major points of interests in the region by auto is that you never actually learn how to navigate the region, or the areas surrounding those points of interests. What you do you learn is the location’s position to the nearest highway. The result is that you don’t know where anything is, just how to get there from one origin.

The same holds true for large cities, like Chicago, when it comes to traveling to new places – you learn how to travel to your destination, but you don’t know your destination. You won’t know what’s in between here and there, and you won’t see the changes and history that brought social groups from here to there, spatially and chronologically. 

A method to encourage visitors – this doesn’t mean tourists – to know their destination, and spread out “their feelers” to get a real understanding of a neighborhood’s substance is by pointing out significant spaces and places. This technique is popularly known as wayfinding. It can be quite simple, like adding signs that show the direction and distance to a well-defined community or major park, or it can be complex by involving residents and asking what are the important points of interest that they would like to promote.

Wayfinding signage is only one way to correct the original statement in this article: that the motor vehicle hides local values and decreases our knowledge of the space in between and around our origin and destination. We travel too fast, and we take bypassing highways. 

There are other approaches cities can take to help people slow down and experience more interesting places.

  1. Make it accessible. This doesn’t mean complying with Americans with Disabilities Act. It means increasing the options on how people can get there, or informing them of their options. This could mean identifying nearby roads suitable for bicycling, or promoting existing transit service nearby, but also making sure that locals and visitors don’t compete for auto parking space.
  2. Market the place. Use traditional marketing and advertising to tell people why they should spend a little more time exploring and getting to know the place. Perhaps your community has a bistro bustling during lunch, and a few blocks away is a farmer’s market where business has plateaued because only the locals are buying. Some low-cost graphics and a good relationship with the restaurant now has 5% of its customers venturing out to the market. 

I wrote a paper on the residential and economic dynamics between two adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago’s Lower West Side, University Village and Pilsen. University Village is a neighborhood created from scratch – designed to be “perfect” you could say. It houses a few thousand university students who come and go on different daily and weekly schedules, as well as permanent homeowners population. Sprinkle in some restaurants, local and national retail firms, and essential services like dry cleaning and hair salons along two major and intersecting bus routes and you have a “perfect” neighborhood.

University Village, because of its newness and designed quality, lacks character, history, and can seem a bit sterile. That’s where Pilsen can support the new neighborhood; Pilsen is over 100 years old, has seen major demographic, spatial, and physical changes, and heavily influenced by its majority Mexican population that it more than makes up for what University Village lacks. The problem is that neither neighborhood knows about the other aside from a bus, bike, or car ride through. There’s also a railroad viaduct separating the two. These barriers can be overcome, and each neighborhood can require the services of the other. Students usually need cheap food – you can get that in Pilsen. And long-time residents want new retail choices – University Village can provide that.

Read the entire paper, titled Economic and residential dynamics between University Village and Pilsen.

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