Signs of Worcester: How do they compare?

In a previous post we took a peek at the graphic elements being used on signs in nearby towns.  This time we’ll examine the state of street name signage in those towns and see how Worcester’s signs compare.

Before we do, however, let’s discuss some of the reasons we’re seeing some larger signs installed on our street corners in recent years.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) maintains a comprehensive set of guidelines for signage called the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  Compliance with the MUTCD is required on any federal-aid road project in which federal highway funds participate. While Worcester may not receive much funding from the federal government, the MUTCD has been adopted, with some amendments, by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, so the federal requirements are by and large the state ones as well.  Any road projects which use state or federal monies must comply with the MUTCD.  In most cases, our older (smaller) street name signage won’t suffice, and will need to be upgraded.

Regarding the layout of street name signs, the MUTCD says the following in section 2D.03:

“Except where otherwise specified herein for individual signs or groups of signs, guide signs on streets and highways shall have a white message and border on a green background. All messages, borders, and legends shall be retroreflective and all backgrounds shall be retroreflective or illuminated.”

Massachusetts added some amendments, including section 2D.38 (the importance of which we’ll see shortly) which states:

“Street name signs for Massachusetts streets and highways shall consist of white legend on green background, unless other acceptable contrasting colors have been approved by the Massachusetts Highway Department for use on a given project.”

Regarding letter heights, we see in section 2D.06 of the MUTCD:

“The principal legend on guide signs shall be in letters and numerals at least 150 mm (6 in) in height for all capital letters, or a combination of 150 mm (6 in) in height for upper-case letters with 113 mm (4.5 in) in height for lower-case letters. On low-volume roads (as defined in Section 5A.01), and on urban streets with speeds of 40 km/h (25 mph) or less, the principal legend shall be in letters at least 100 mm (4 in) in height.”

Anyway, here’s what the MUTCD suggests a street name sign should look like:

As we saw above, a Massachusetts amendment to the MUTCD allows for different colors, providing they’re approved by the state.  Some of our neighboring towns are availing of this option to make their signs a bit more unique.  Let’s look at some of them.

AUBURN

For many years Auburn has had distinctive blue street signs with white lettering.  I always found these a bit more noticeable than Worcester’s signs, as the dark blue doesn’t occur in nature much around here.  The older blue signs were about the same size as Worcester’s older green ones.

Here’s what Auburn’s newer signs look like:

The typeface sizes meet MUTCD specs, and were spaced well enough that I could make out the street name from hundreds of feet away as I approached.  I couldn’t tell what was on the circular seal, though.  And even when standing right in front of the sign, you still can’t.  On some signs the seal is fading already, after less than a decade.

BOYLSTON

The town of Boylston has some of the worst street name signs in this area.  They’re very small, not very retroflective, and many are badly worn.  I couldn’t find any MUTCD-compliant signs at all, except this one at the intersection of Rtes. 140 & 70 (sorry for the lousy photo quality!):


Presumably the signs on that post were installed by the state.

For what it’s worth, here’s a set of better-quality signs in downtown Boylston:

GRAFTON

Grafton still has a lot of the smaller green street name signs, but here’s what the newer ones look like:

It has the full town seal on it, and complies with the MUTCD in all aspects.  Nicely done, Grafton!

HOLDEN

The street name signs in Holden are still mostly the smaller green ones.  There are some larger MUTCD-style signs on along Main St., though.  They feature white type on blue, similar to Auburn:

The MUTCD does allow for the use of lowercase letters, but as you can see in the photo above, the descender on the “p” is obscured by the hardware to which the sign is affixed.  I did notice, though, that Holden did a better job than Worcester of accommodating the descenders — none of them reach the bottom of the blank as they do in Worcester.  Here’s another:

I particularly liked their “Main St.” Signs — there’s extra space above to let you know you’re in an historic district:

LEICESTER

The town of Leicester still has lots of the smaller green street name signs, but they’ve been slowly replacing them with ones like this:

No graphic elements & a plain sans-serif font, but very readable and very MUTCD-compliant.

MILLBURY

Millbury started replacing their smaller green signs in 2001 with this style:

For a while it seemed they were steadily replacing the smaller signs with these maroon signs with gold lettering.  The typeface there seems to be one of the FHWA fonts that preceded “Clearview Highway” (their newest typeface).  I have not seen FHWA typefaces on any other street name signs in this area.

At some point Millbury seems to have changed its mind about the color scheme and typeface, as there are now more of this style in town:

The letters are nicely spaced sans-serifs, easily viewable from a distance.  While the maroon signs might win awards for being eye-catching, these green ones are more readable.

OXFORD

The town of Oxford doesn’t seem to be replacing very many street name signs.  Most of the older ones (black type on white) are still in place, and they look like this:

I found one example of MUTCD-compliant signage:

And this example of street name signs that meet federal guidelines for letter height but which take advantage of the Massachusetts amendment on contrasting colors:

I guess only time will tell which way Oxford will go.

PAXTON

Paxton’s older (smaller) signs used yellow blanks with black type.  I noticed that about a third of the streets I drove past recently had been changed over to MUTCD-compliant green signs with a sans-serif typeface, no graphic elements.  I did find one set of signs that reimpose the old color scheme on the larger blanks:

SHREWSBURY

The town of Shrewsbury seems to have replaced about a third of their older signs, based on a few visits my family has made in recent weeks.  Many of the replacement signs are standard MUTCD-compliant green ones with no graphic elements, but some have a circular graphic featuring a “colonial” in profile.  Shrewsbury’s school athletic teams are called the Colonials; this is not the same as the town seal.

I think this was a better choice than using the town seal.  Even from a distance in a moving vehicle, I could tell what image was on these signs.

WEST BOYLSTON

The newer signs in West Boylston are a lot like those in Leicester — white type on green, all caps, no graphics:

West Boylston seems to have replaced about a quarter of the signs I saw as we drove through town recently.

How does Worcester compare to its neighbors?

If the criteria for good signage included “variety”, Worcester would be a shoe-in.  However, consistency in signage is seen by most people (and the FHWA) as a virtue, so in this regard, our fair city fails miserably.  Despite that lack of consistency, however, all of Worcester’s various signs are better than those in poor Boylston.

The MUTCD recommends the use of uppercase letters in street name signage, though it allows the use of lowercase letters if they’re 4.5 inches tall.  Worcester and Holden have been using lowercase letters and have had some problems with descenders.  At one point Millbury was using some lowercase letters on the maroon signs, but because they were using an FHWA font, the descenders and ascenders were short in relation to the x-height (please refer to the earlier typography post if you’ve forgotten what these terms mean), so they were less problematic.

The MUTCD allows a graphic element on street name signs — here are some examples from the FHWA website:

In general, assessing graphic symbols is a matter of personal taste. The MUTCD-compliant signs in Leicester and West Boylston are quite effective without having a seal or other element to adorn them.  Worcester’s “heart” symbol seems the most easily recognizable element in the area, though I wish the DPW’s sign shop would be a bit more consistent with the shape of the heart.  (The one on Worcester’s seal is a bit more acorn-shaped than the hearts on most of the street signs.)  I think the graphic elements on the signs in Shrewsbury and Grafton are both quite nice, and my husband likes the seal on Millbury’s maroon signs (but not on the green ones).  Which one(s) do you prefer?

In the area of background color, the green is probably the safe choice if your community expects to receive federal funds at some point.  Otherwise, using a Massachusetts-approved combination should be fine.  Of the non-green ones, Auburn seems the best with its white uppercase sans-serif letters on blue.  Holden is similar, but uses lowercase letters whose descenders sometimes get obscured by sign hardware.  I like Oxford’s and Paxton’s non-standard colors (white and yellow, respectively), though neither is using them extensively yet for sign replacements.

What do you think of the signage from nearby communities?  Do you have a favorite?  And how do you think Worcester compares?

One thing that all of these signs from the suburbs have in common — they use a sans-serif font, which has become nearly universal on U.S. “guide signs”, including street name signs.  Unlike on a printed page, where serif fonts are more readable, road signs must be read quickly, and from a distance.  Serifs get in the way of that.  Worcester’s use of “Times New Roman” typefaces may get points for originality, but not legibility.

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2 thoughts on “Signs of Worcester: How do they compare?

  1. Lee says:

    You are tenacious!
    I love the way you have followed through on the street sign story so thoroughly.
    And I agree with your point about the serif vs. sans serif. In this case visual clarity equals safety. I don’t want the drivers around me squinting at street signs for protracted periods of time.
    Thanks!
    - Lee

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback!

      As I said to someone via email, I think seeing is believing (or, at least, seeing a lot of pictures of good and bad sign design can convince someone about what looks better).

      I especially appreciate the safety aspect. There are two issues there: one is that someone will drive REALLY slowly to determine signs; the other is that someone will see a sign too late, and either stop short or do a U-turn.

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