Signs of Worcester: What’s next?

Though it may be hard to believe, there was a time in my life when I didn’t think much about street signs.  Sure, I’d get frustrated when I’d come to a Greendale intersection that didn’t have any streets labeled, but for the most part I took the signage in Worcester for granted.  The boring, white-on-green signs of Worcester were as dependable as Bill Coleman running for elected office.

I can’t say when or where I began to notice the changes.  Perhaps it was at the corner of Park and Salisbury, where wonderfully large signs with puzzlingly small letters were installed.  Perhaps it was during my morning commute down Shrewsbury Street, where each successive cross street displays a rather unique signage creation/experiment unrelated to the signs I’d just passed.  The last straw was definitely when the sign for my own street, which was perfectly legible, was replaced by a sign with smaller letters . . . and somehow lost its “Private Street Dangerous” designation altogether, despite our potholes being no less dangerous.

As I’ve taken you along with me on this little signage excursion for the past week or so, I hope you’re now as attentive to our signs as I have become.  And although I may have bored you with some sign-related minutiae, I hope you’re also now better equipped to judge what makes for good street name signs.  As we’ve seen, it takes more than someone’s random sense of aesthetics to create effective signs on relatively small pieces of metal affixed to roadside posts.

I mentioned a while back that I’d share some of my own opinions when we reached the end of this topic.  Let’s start by commending the Department of Public Works & Parks for what’s good about their signs, and then discuss what might need some work or additional thought.

What the City is Doing Right

  • Using the latest retroreflective material

As mentioned in our second installment, the recent signs contain microscopic prismatic reflectors that make them much more visible at night, which makes for safer (night) driving.

  • Nine inch tall blanks (and sometimes twelve inch blanks!)

A larger blank means that letters can be larger and, perhaps, better-spaced.  One of the problems with larger blanks is that a municipality might buy thinner ones to compensate for the cost; see the picture of Armandale St. (which was incorrect anyway — the sign says “Armadale”) in our fourth installment for the problems associated with thinner blanks.

What I recommend

  • Design that meets MUTCD/MassDOT guidelines.

We’re going to be receiving federal and state highway dollars for the Canal District Streetscape project, which means that the street signs in that area will need to meet the MUTCD guidelines.  We’re already meeting some of those guidelines with the retroreflective materials and the appropriately sized sign blanks on some of the new signs.  The guidelines are very well thought out and researched; the primary goals of the guidelines are safety and readability, which is the whole point of street signs.

The guidelines Worcester should consistently comply with are 6-inch uppercase letters on the street name (or 6-inch initial capital with 4.5-inch lowercase) and 3-inch street type designation (using standard abbreviations).  To accommodate type at these sizes, a 9-inch tall blank will be needed.

Some suggestions from the MUTCD which are based on research and make a lot of sense include using a sans-serif typeface and having a white outline around the street name.

  • Consistency in design.

If we’re going to be replacing signs, we should give them a consistent look and feel.  See our third installment for some examples of the inconsistency in fonts and the fourth for some examples of inconsistency in the other sign elements.  The city should take the longest street name in the city of Worcester, figure out how to lay that out on the longest blank consistent with MUTCD and state guidelines, and then work backwards from there.  We should also be working from a template with a consistent font, a consistent heart design, and a consistent street designation placement.

  • Moratorium on sign replacement until a design is settled upon.

I’m not sure why we continue to replace perfectly readable signs in our current economic climate, but I assume that we will be replacing at least the street signs in the Canal District.  So, we need to come up with a “final” design before we begin sign installation in the Canal District.

  • Better proofreading.

We’ve found some bloopers and inconsistencies, as discussed in our sixth installment.  We need to make sure that signs are accurately identifying a street.  We also need to ensure that private streets are appropriately labeled.

  • Prioritizing signs that need to be replaced.

There are some signs in this city that are illegible because the adhesive sheeting is peeling off the blank, or because letters are disintegrating or missing.  Those signs should have first priority in being replaced.

  • Stop reusing six inch tall blanks

If we’re going to replace signs according to MUTCD/MassDOT guidelines, then we can’t continue reusing six inch blanks on streets where the speed limit is above 25 mph.

So, what can we do with those old blanks, besides recycling them?  The Town of Hudson sells their old signs for $10, which would not completely pay for a new sign, but likely goes some of the way in defraying the cost.  The Town of Wellesley recently auctioned 250 used street signs for a total of $4,900 (nearly $20 a sign).  While Wellesley used that money to benefit their middle and senior high school libraries, Worcester could take a similar approach to one or both towns and use the money towards sign replacements.  If Worcester charged $20 a sign, that would pay for most, if not all, of the materials for a new sign.  (If we’d auctioned off the sign for my street, I can think of a few residents who would have paid more than $20, myself included.)

What might Worcester’s signs look like if we meet MUTCD standards?

Let’s assume for a moment that Worcester’s decision-makers consent to do away with the ill-advised used of “Times New Roman” and that they’ll switch back to a sans-serif font and comply with all of the MUTCD’s guidelines.  Let’s also assume that they dispense with the use of some random heart shape generated from a dingbat font and actually trace the shape of the heart in the Worcester seal (hey, DPW, we’ve done that job for you — e-mail me for the EPS file!).  Here are a couple of possibilities, using the FHWA typeface “Series B“, showing an all-caps look (my preference!), and one that includes lowercase:

The second one is very tight to the white border because the x-height of the lowercase letters needs to be 4.5 inches (until recently it had been 4 inches).  To accommodate descenders, the version with lowercase letters needs to have its baseline set higher — a trick that Worcester’s DPW hasn’t quite mastered, as we saw in our “Oops” installment last Friday.

What do you think, Worcester?  Doesn’t the uppercase version just leap out at you — as opposed to the mousy “Times New Roman” typeface on recent signs?