As Ohio trails grow in length and begin to form networks, two basic needs will arise for trail users: The need for easy trail identification and navigation. Just as street signs and road maps clarify travel for Ohio motorists, a system will be needed for trails as well.
Roadway vs Bikeway Navigation
Though the navigation principles of roadways and bikeways are indeed similar, the infrastructures are not. As a motorist, you can pick up an Ohio road map and in the process take care of perhaps 90% of your navigational needs in one fell swoop. Should you decide to use it, GPS may be another option that approaches 100%. Cyclists, however, have no such standardized, scaled maps or aids for the trail. They have little framework in place (by comparison) as the first major state-wide trail arteries are still being constructed. In short, the Ohio trail network is in its infancy at this time. So, though we may look to the roadway system for helpful pointers, it's clear that trail travelers have their own unique navigational challenges. And with Ohio's continued trail growth, that issue will only grow larger over time.
First Step - An ID System
There's little doubt that longer trails, which extend across large regions or the entire state, would benefit from an ID system much like roadways. Small ID signs could provide continuity on your journey and help you find your way. Aside from a name, each trail could also have a designated number or symbol such as the Ohio-to-Erie Trail logo. More on logos in a moment. The concern I have with trail numbers is that they don't immediately tell you anything. By that I mean, if you're trail riding and spot a sign that reads "15" or "Route 15," what does that mean? Unfortunately, unless you have something that deciphers the numbering system, like a complementary map, not much.
Not let's suppose you're trail riding and come upon a sign that shows the Ohio-to-Erie Trail logo. The info contained on this simple little sign is quite wonderful. It shows the entire state with the route of the trail drawn across it in one undulating line. You can easily deduce that you're riding on the trail that's depicted, even if no text accompanied the image. (Otherwise, why would the sign be posted here?) You can also see that the trail traverses the state and if you have an idea of your approximate position, you have a rough idea of where you are along the route! When a trail name is added to the image, as in the example above, it allows you to associate a proper name with the trail and completes the informational picture.
This concept could be utilized by regional trails by using an outline or image of a county or a large city -- whatever appropriately demonstrates the scope of the trail or its path. The real beauty of these signs is that they stand alone and don't require a map or other interpretive device. Sure, the provided info is limited, but far greater than a trail sign that simply shows a name or number.
Another great navigation tool is that old standby, the mile marker post. These little guys can be more than just another number along the trail when used creatively. Take a look at this Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath mile marker. It shows the distance to a destination, Lake Erie, giving you a great reference point no matter where you may be on the towpath. And if you happen to be traveling to Cleveland or the lake, the markers gauge your progress as you ride! Unfortunately, this is not known to everyone, including me during my initial visits there. I saw them simply as cute little stone pillars and paid little attention and gleaned no information from them.
(A clever variation on the mile-marker concept can be seen on the Kipton to Elyria section of the North Coast Inland Trail, where two sides are utilized to show mileage for both directions of travel.)
The question is: Can mile markers be utilized in an even more useful way?
Yes, of course. The mile posts could be combined with the logo concept to fill in the blanks. Some might argue that adding a symbol to the towpath markers would detract from the clean design. That's for others to debate. I'm merely pointing out that combining the two concepts in some manner (not necessarily on the same post) would be of great benefit to trail users in terms of navigation. Then those cute little pillars would serve a clear purpose to everyone, rather than just looking nice.
Navigating A Network
While logos and mile markers may be great for navigating bikeways that span several counties or even the entire state, they do little to help you find your way onto other trails within a network. That's where an ID system makes perfect sense, especially when supporting maps are available to show the big regional or statewide picture. Then roadway-like maps with route numbers and names will be essential for trip planning and touring.
Kiosks along bikeways could be an excellent start towards that end. They could give the trail traveler proper perspective where and when he really needs it -- on the trail. A kiosk could provide the latest map of the numbered network with the proverbial "You are here!" marker. Other supporting maps could cover local (city), regional (county), or the big state-wide picture. Things really get exciting when you plug traditional cycling resources into these maps such as locations for campgrounds, bike shops, B & B's, etc. No, it's not GPS, but it's still quite nice.
Putting It All Together
A trail numbering system currently used in southwestern Ohio is perhaps the first attempt to clearly mark and identify various bikeway routes. While Ohio bikeway names are subject to change, theoretically their assigned numbers would remain the same allowing easier identification.
SW Ohio Signage
The Miami Valley area in southwestern Ohio is once again leading the way to better trail navigation by unveiling more comprehensive trail signs. The signs feature a trail number and name which is color-coded to match a regional trail map. An emergency phone number and managing agency is also included. Some signs will also provide directions and distances to facilities and other locations.
Whether this will be adopted state-wide to properly address trail users' needs remains to be seen. But there can be no doubt that these signs are a vaulable tool for navigation along the ever-growing maze of Ohio trails.
Though an easily navigable Ohio trail system may only be a concept today, it's never too early to start implementing devices that will help users with trail identification and navigation now and in the future. Clearly the stand alone signs, such as those for the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, can provide the most benefit in the short term. But other methods, such as the new Miami Valley signs with supporting maps, could help to further establish Ohio trails in the future as perhaps one of the more navigable trail systems in the country.