Get Lost

This post was originally written for Spacing Ottawa,, and is reprinted here in case you are so negligent you do not subscribe to that site. You should have read it there! Spacing deals with geography across Canada; Spacing Ottawa deals with geography in Ottawa. WSA, of course, is a smaller focus on the neighborhoods on the  west side of the downtown. But it’s all geography!

There is some new content at the bottom of the post.


As an urban society, we have to shift our focus away from exclusively serving motor vehicles as the norm, and towards serving people, regardless of the mode they use.

Say you want to give someone directions  to visit you. Giving driving instructions is quite straight forward. Take Albert Street to Bronson then turn right… etc etc.  Roads have names because people can remember them, sort them, and keep things somewhat straight.

Now try giving  instructions to your house using pedestrian and cycling paths: “Well, just past the bridge over the railway tracks, take the unpaved path on the right, the one under the hydro pylons, and follow it till you get to the fifth path that runs off to the left and follow it to get to my street. And don’t take the fourth or sixth turn-off, or you will never get here.”

After all, we would never think of building streets without naming them, but we build paths without names. This lack of names denies them legitimacy. We name everything in our language; pundits and academics delight in putting a new name on some new trend or discovery. So why aren’t people demanding names for our paths? Especially with 9-1-1 service being geographically address based, knowing a location is a matter of vital urban safety as well as a convenience.

A few years ago I started lobbying for a proper off-road bike and pedestrian path along the north side of Albert and Scott Streets, from Bronson to Churchill. I got tired of waving my hands in the air every time I tried to describe where it is, and coined the name BikeWest. Politicians and planners adopted the word  immediately. By branding the path, and the concept of improving it, BikeWest got a life. It got respect. It became real. Now you won’t find the name on a City map yet, but lots of planners and people know where it is.

And names are important. I am not a fan of numbering pedestrian and cycling paths or routes. If a route follows Bank Street, we don’t need it to have a second identifier as “bike route 17”. For routes that follow a maze of different streets, or run separate from streets, we do need a unique name that creates a unified route.

Quite simply, every bike path and walking path should have a distinct name. Preferably a name that identifies where it is or gives a clue about where it goes. These could be directional (BikeWest) or by neighborhood (Little Italy, Westboro).

We would never think of building streets without street signs, but we don’t hesitate to build pedestrian and cycling paths without signs. We don’t have signs because most paths lack names. And that which is unworthy of a name is unworthy of respect, of being used in daily discourse, or being useful.

But without names, there is no easy way to identify a path. It is even worse if you are on it, and come to a street corner or intersection. Where it meets a cross street, the City will put up street signs for even the shortest little dead-end road. Motorists need to know where they are.  But if you arrive via footpath or cycle path, apparently the City either believes that you don’t deserve to know where you are, or that you will somehow divine your location by geo-osmosis.

Every time a path meets another, it should be sign posted. And every time a side path runs off to a local street, sign it! It is accepted that providing such signing, for motorists, is simply a normal cost of running a city. But why only for motorists?

Fortunately, we have the NCC giving us a taste of what should be done. A number of the NCC’s main pathways do have names, with occasional signs identifying them, but the path names are not yet widely recognized.

The NCC signs sometimes show streets, or attractions, or path names, or two of the three — just as we have come to expect in signage for drivers. These signs reassure users they are on the correct route, how far it is to their destination, etc. Still, not all NCC pathways have these signs, and the ones that do are not consistent in what they show.

Even better would be numbered posts every tenth of a kilometer on greenway trails (they can do it on highways…) or putting up house-style numbers on each lamp post along the urban routes. If there is an accident, if someone is lost, if someone wonders how far they have to go, a glance at the nearest post would put them on the 9-1-1 map.

As a society we have a century of figuring out how to name and sign streets and install wayfinding signage for motorists. It is time to assign names to paths, then hand the job over to the City sign department who should develop appropriate signage standards and vocabulary.

As an urban society, we have to shift our focus away from exclusively serving motor vehicles as the norm, and towards serving people, regardless of the mode they use.


Here is an example of street numbering at work in a park. The old trolley station at Britannia is a popular picnic spot. It has been given a street number even though it is not on a street, so a sign post has been installed at the street itself. Addresses are important in our geographical identity systems.

4 thoughts on “Get Lost

  1. Eric, it was nice to meet you this morning on our Champlain Oaks walk. And pleasantly ironic that I read your post on naming things to give them prominence / help people see and understand them since I wrote a post with a similar punchline on my Beg to Differ blog about the effect naming our cause had on the Champlain Oaks Project:

    I completely agree that paths need names and clear signage, and while I agree that the NCC has *started* to mark their paths a bit better, it’s as haphazard and piecemeal as anything the NCC does. I love that sign for Carleton Avenue that seems to indicate you can get to Parliament Hill by turning due South off the path and going 5.0 km – and good luck finding your way back downtown from Meadowlands and Fisher. The fact is, city and NCC planners still treat the non-street parts of their portfolios as urban “here be dragons” zones – abandon hope of 911 all ye who enter here.

    Funny you mention the idea of clear distance markers on NCC paths. It’s interesting that every year runners in my area will spraypaint their own clandestine kilometre markers on the pavement of the Ottawa River pathway (is that the right name?) to give themselves a sense of context.

  2. I bike through an unnamed stretch of (presumably) NCC pathway twice a week. The first few times I got completely lost because they didn’t tell me to go south I had to first go north, then east, and then finally south. Instead I ended up on the wrong side of a busy street completely lost.

    Further along this same path (which I’ve sinced figured out thanks to some exploring I did after that first disastrous trip) there’s a splash pad. I tried to explain it to some friends with kids, but there was no street sign where the path crosses what seems to be a decent sized inner-suburb road. If I knew what the street was, I could tell my friends how to get their kids to the park. Instead I gave some landmarks and how far I imagine I had biked since the last landmark (whose street I also did not know: see lack of signs when paths intersect with streets).

    All in all, I agree that the paths should be named, that the signs should help you get where you’re going, and that a better effort of identifying street names where they cross paths is important.

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