The Bike Blaze guy painted bike blazes on the Gwynns Falls Trail, guerilla-style, and lived to tell about it. Here is his story.
A couple of months ago, I painted “bike blazes” on the Gwynns Falls Trail. Several people have told me that the blazes make the trail a lot easier to follow. Here’s what I did and why I did it.
Just about everyone who’s tried to follow a bike route on city streets has had this happen: you’re riding along, seeing green-and-white Bike Route signs every few blocks, then at some point you realize that you haven’t seen a sign for a while. You’ve missed a turn at some place on the route, and unless you’ve got a map with you, you’re lost. It’s easy to understand how it can happen; signs can be missing or badly placed, or obscured by foliage or parked vehicles. And we spend so much time looking down at the road for potholes, broken glass, death grates, and other hazards, it’s easy to miss a sign high on a pole.
The on-street part of the Gwynns Falls Trail goes about 3.5 miles between Carroll Park and the Inner Harbor (see the map at http://www.gwynnsfallstrail.org/map.cfm). It took me several tries before I followed the route without missing any turns. I know my way around Baltimore well enough that getting off the route is just an adventure, but for an inexperienced cyclist, getting lost might not be much fun. The off-street bike path between Carroll Park and the I-70 Park and Ride is easier to follow, but there are still a few intersections that aren’t entirely obvious. These frustrating experiences for first-time riders may be part of the reason that the Gwynns Falls Trail gets less use than other bikeways in the area that are easier to follow, such as the BWI Trail and the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail. Because I enjoy riding on the Gwynns Falls Trail and would like to see more people riding on it, I painted “bike blazes” as a way to make wayfinding easier. I don’t know how original the idea is; I think they could be useful on other bike routes and would be glad to answer anyone’s questions about them.
A bike blaze is a green-and-white oval, based on one of the official bike-route sign designs (sign M1-8) in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. For the main part of the Gwynns Falls Trail, I modified MUTCD M1-8 by removing the bike symbol (because the Gwynns Falls Trail is multi-use, not just for bicycles, and because I thought the bike symbol was too delicate to stencil clearly) and adding “Trail” so it wouldn’t be so mysterious. I had a few pedestrians (who were walking on the Gwynns Falls Trail) ask me what “GF” stood for, so when I later made stencils for the Middle Branch Trail and Dickeyville Trail, I spelled out their names (using Roadgeek 2005 font, a free version of the Clearview font that is used for official highway signs). I copied the oval from MUTCD M1-8, put the two-letter abbreviation in it, then stretched it to 200% vertically because it would be seen at an angle. I added the trail names after stretching, because those would probably be read just once by someone looking straight down, not repeatedly by someone approaching. After stretching, the oval is 13 inches high and 4 inches wide. The arrows are 6 inches high (straight) and 4.5 inches high (curved) and are copied from p. 388 of the MUTCD. This is large enough to be easily visible to a cyclist, without distracting motorists.
I used spray cans of striping paint, the same kind of paint used for lines in parking lots. This is supposed to last much longer than the construction marking paint that is used for painting arrows for group rides such as the Tour dem Parks. White striping paint is widely available, but the only source for spray cans of green striping paint I could find is Aervoe. I did not add reflective glass beads to the paint, as I think it’s unlikely that someone would ride an unfamiliar trail at night. I vigourously swept the area of each blaze with a broom, painted the green ovals for a few blazes, then came back to the beginning and added the white letters and arrows after the green paint had dried for a half hour or more.
The basic principle I followed was to paint one blaze before and one blaze after every intersection (even alleys) when the route was straight. This may seem excessive, but I think it’s good to provide repeated reassurance that a cyclist is still on the route. Once the cyclist gets used to seeing blazes at every intersection, they’ll know that if they come to an intersection and don’t see the blazes, they’ve missed a turn. Because bike route signs are only placed every few blocks, it can take a long time before you realize that you haven’t seen one for a while and should start to worry. Providing this level of reinforcement with a bike route sign at every intersection would be expensive and add too much to the visual clutter of the city.
Where the route turns, I put two blazes about 30 feet apart. The double blaze should alert the cyclist to a turn. I used a slanted arrow for turns of 45 degrees or less and a curved arrow for turns sharper than that.
On streets with permanent parking, I put the blazes a foot or two left of the parked cars. On streets without parking, I put the blazes a foot or two left of the edge of the street. The goal is not to guide cyclists to ride directly over the blaze; instead, they should be able to look down and to the right and see the blaze as they ride past. This position also means that if you’re behind stopped cars at an intersection, the blaze will be visible to the right of the cars, not hidden underneath them. Keeping the blazes out of the car traffic lane should also make them last longer.
Ideally, signs at places where the trail splits would tell you where to go, but some of the intersections on the Gwynns Falls Trail are not marked clearly. I therefore added destinations to the blazes at decision points and instructions at some other ambiguous points.
In addition to being placed on the pavement, where cyclists are likely to see them, another advantage of bicycle blazes is their low cost. I put close to 400 blazes on the 16 miles of the Gwynns Falls, Middle Branch, and Dickeyville trails for about $200 in paint, which is about the cost of a single thermoplastic sharrow or a handful of bike route signs. It took me about 30 hours, and because I was working at the edge of the roadway during times when traffic was light, I did not have to block a lane of traffic.
If you’ve ridden the Gwynns Falls Trail, I’d be curious to know what you think; you can leave comments here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-The Bike Blaze Guy