Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wayfinding in Chattanooga, Richmond, and Indianapolis

Interesting wayfinding stories continue to find their way to my computer monitor, which may be the internet’s way of telling me to share.

Similar to the story I earlier passed along about vigilante wayfinding in Raleigh, North Carolina, another scofflaw urbanist has begun mounting unapproved wayfinding signs in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The Chattanooga attempt seems a more brute force approach, lacking the subtlety or stealth of the Raleigh effort, but urban enthusiasm is always appreciated, even if heavy-handed.

(I spent a night in Chattanooga last year.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to look around, but was intrigued by the areas of downtown I saw.  Since then, I’ve read articles about the rebirth of the city and become fascinated by it.  A fascination that is apparently shared by others, based on this story about local typeface designers creating a font specifically for use in Chattanooga.  Unfortunately, the vigilante wayfinding signs didn’t use the font.)

Meanwhile, the state of Virginia is trying to find their way through a different wayfinding dilemma.  To raise funds for street and highway repairs, the state has adopted a sponsorship program, allowing businesses to put their names on roadway segments.  All funds raised would go to maintenance of the road.

To maximize advertising revenue, the state isn’t content solely to post signs with “Pizza Hut Expressway”.  They also want on-line mapping services, such as Google Maps, to display the sponsored name.

I’m sympathetic to the need to increase infrastructure funding in these times.  I’m generally amenable to tax reform and tax hikes, but also understand the political realities.  Further, if I try really hard, I can manage not to gag when presented with sports venue names such as Coliseum or AT&T Park.

But the Virginia scheme goes too far.  Street signage isn’t just another type of billboard.  It’s an essential element of wayfinding.  Will the advertising dollars cover the liability costs when a driver, confused by whether the old Westside Highway has become “Rice-a-Roni Highway” or “Preparation H Highway”, causes a multiple-car collision?  Public safety argues against the plan.

Nor is it even clear that the advertising dollars would be significant enough to make a real difference.   There seems to be a common perception that advertising dollars are an infinite resource, with the only limit being our creativity in conceiving new spots on to which signs can be slapped.

But behind any advertising is a real company with a real advertising budget.  And it’s usually a company selling a consumer product to a population whose resources for consumer spending have been barely holding even.  The golden goose may already be on life support.

Virginia seems committed to the plan.  I can only hope that the sponsorship dollars are so paltry that the plan dies a quick and quiet death.

Lastly, American Dirt offers thoughts on changes in the downtown street grid in Indianapolis.  The link is long and could have used better editing (criticisms which can also be often applied here), but the thrust is that Indianapolis allowed several downtown street segments to be vacated to facilitate new office buildings without adequately considering the consequences.  (Which is somewhat parallel to the Apple situation in Cupertino.)

I’ll generally come down in favor of retaining as many street connections as possible.  But I’ll acknowledge that sometimes street vacation is an acceptable option.  But when it happens, other complementary changes should be made so the traffic that formerly used the vacated street is easily and conveniently shifted elsewhere.  This seems to be step that Indianapolis missed.

Wayfinding is more than maps and signs.  It also includes the clues that we pick up from the streets themselves.  By at least this account, Indianapolis failed to respond to that need.  And the best maps and signage struggle to overcome that shortfall.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Photo by David Barlew, Jr.)


  1. From one blogging Dave to another, thanks for linking to my post. I'm glad you found it interesting. On my site, I write about urbanism in Chattanooga frequently.

    1. Dave, sorry I didn't see your comment sooner after you posted it. Thanks for writing. I've now added your website to my bookmarks. I spent a night in Chattanooga a year ago, primarily to see a Lookouts game. But I found the downtown intriguing and look forward to visiting again.