Wayfinding: Is it worth it?

Originally published in the Renton Reporter dated October 27th, 2017. Link.

Before we had cell phones in our hands or GPS units were in our cars, there were paper maps, gas station attendants and street signs around town that pointed us to significant landmarks. In fact those signs are still around in a lot of cities and they’re called wayfinding. In many cities wayfinding signs have become highly decorative and impressive.

Cell phones, GPS units, taxi cabs, Uber and Lyft have all contributed to the declining use of wayfinding and this brings us to something interesting: Wayfinding is really expensive.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation the simplest sign on a metal post costs around $2,000 to build and install. Modern, elaborate signage with directionally correct arrows in cities like Renton have been taken on at costs of $200,000 and up.

Now, to be clear, I’m not critical of street signs and freeway exits; that sort of signage is practical and effective. I’m talking about the signs that point to the library, local park, a school or a business district. It’s such landmark-based signage that is becoming really expensive even though they’re being used less and less. Our phones solve this problem so much more effectively than a sign.

Renton is working with consultants on a plan for the Downtown Civic Core and Action Plan, hoping to revitalize the area and attain a consistent look and feel in that part of town. The plan focuses heavily on wayfinding. As a resident and taxpayer, I question the value of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that would go to wayfinding. Wouldn’t that money be better spent for our parks, trails and community services?

Now there is an important role for wayfinding in certain situations. For example they could help for cyclists who ride around Lake Washington to find an easy way into downtown Renton, a city they’ve only probably ridden past. This is an example of a specific opportunity for us to capture people who are coming through town and invite them to into our great city. With just a few straightforward signs, we could have a big impact.

However, a general effort to install wayfinding around the downtown area would be a significant investment for something that few people use.

If you would like to learn more about wayfinding in downtown Renton, take a look at the Downtown Civic Core Vision and Action Plan at http://rentonwa.gov/civiccore/. If you have thoughts about the value and cost of wayfinding be sure to let Community Development Project Manager John Collum, Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preethi Shridhar, the Planning Commission and our City Council know. They work for us and they are getting ready to approve the current plan, which includes wayfinding, in December.

Jeff is a long time Renton resident and entrepreneur.