GAP Signage Project

Among the projects lined out at the beginning of my service year was a second iteration of an inventory of the signs along the Great Allegheny Passage hiking and biking trail. The first inventory, completed in 2007, documented around 250 signs of various forms and functions and helped to show how the inconsistency of sign designs, maintenance, and placement needed to be better managed.  The trail needed better planned signs of consistent designs that branded the Great Allegheny Passage along its length, led visitors safely to needed services, and gave the sense that it is an attractive and well-maintained recreation destination. Since 2007, a lot of work had been done and the changes needed to be documented, marking the improvements in signs and also having a reference on which to base further improvements. 

Unfortunately, the old inventory existed digitally only in a user-unfriendly form. So, guessing the extent of the changes along the trail I felt it best instead of making one just like it, I’d go one better. Planning departments in governmental organizations often use sign inventory management systems, dedicated computer software or souped-up spreadsheet databases that store a suite of information about individual signs so personnel can track those assets and plan for budgeting, maintenance, and improvements without having to leave the office. So I thought, why not try to use a system like that this time around so that no one has to do an entire inventory ever again?  Let’s have something that records all the information needed so that the various trail maintenance groups can identify a sign and its characteristics, and also let it be organized in some was so that the database is infinitely and easily updatable as new signs go in and old ones come out.

That turned out to be too ambitions and after a while, experience said to simplify. First, trying to record all the information about a sign that planning departments do in the field takes a long time. (Orientation, setback, height, dimensions, face material, backing material, mounting construction, and on and on.)  Second, ‘in the field’ means along 150 miles of trail inaccessible by car. Third (spoiler alert!), there turned out to be far more than the old inventory’s 250 signs along those 150 miles. My methods had to change from one emphasizing complete thoroughness to one that emphasized efficiency.  f it was too cumbersome for me, the inventory would be too bothersome for trail volunteers to use and maintain.

My coworker Chad and I went to the trailheads to catch those densest collections of signs most important to directing traffic and visitors.  And when our schedules allowed, we would take a day to bike a section of the trail and catch what signs we encountered on the way.  Mile markers, wood signs, metal signs, signs mounted up-side down and graffitied, signs broken in half, brand new signs, signs with the wrong trail name on it, all were recorded with photographs and location descriptions and information on their condition, quality, and appropriateness.  And since we had to do it by bike, we had to bike back, eventually riding almost 300 miles with cameras and notebooks.  Given our schedules and the distances we had to cover, this had to be done piecemeal over months.Now, this may sound like a lot of not very glam footwork (on a bike) to document a lot of signs that will – and should – change. 

Still, it’s important. It’s documenting property, former projects that represent thousands of dollars and a lot of uncoordinated work that needs coordination.  Putting new signs in and taking old ones out, as one of the most prominent visitor attraction strategies and maintenance concerns of the trail, is both very important and expensive.  A single interpretive sign professionally built can cost several thousand dollars, so a reference is warranted to help good sign planning and to do it right, to serve the visitors as best as possible, to assist numerous stand-alone trail groups find some coordinated guidance to contribute to a single world-class Great Allegheny Passage trail with as little wasted or duplicated effort as possible.All in all, we recorded over 1,000 signs with over 5,000 photographs, and my Excel database contains, in my estimate, around half a million keystrokes.  Phew! Now that’s done, I get to put the inventory to use and create planning documents for strategic sign improvement projects all along the trail. It’s not over yet….