The mixed messages of a new subdivision sign with red brick but a modern font

A new subdivision I drive by regularly has this as its sign at the entrance off a busy road:

I think I get what the sign is trying to signal:

-Tradition and permanence with the red brick. It signals this is an impressive community that is here to stay. This is not a small sign either; it will be noticeable from a road on which people are driving 45 mph.

-The modern font suggests the neighborhood is not stuck in the past, even if other parts of the sign suggestion a connection to the past. The clean, crisp lines of the letters plus the all-caps first word and not capitalized second suggest dynamism, not stodginess.

Can a subdivision sign have it both ways? Can the font push one direction while the structure of the sign push another?

(Bonus features of the picture: the sales sign for the subdivision is more standard emphasizing “MODELS OPEN” and the starting prices, this is a good encapsulation of what February in the Chicago suburbs often looks like.)

Is the politeness of a “Please… pick up after your pet” sign effective?

On a recent walk down a nearby street, an older man stopped, pointed at the sign pictured below, and said, “It should say: Don’t be a jerk and pick up after your pet.” I made a startled quick response and continued on my walk.

The sign is very polite. It includes both “please” and “thank you.” The politeness is hard to miss in multiple ways: the polite words are at the top and bottom in a different font and the signs are all throughout the neighborhood.

At the same time, the niceties cannot cover up several unpleasant aspects of this sign. The polite words surround a command (“pick up after your pet”). The sign references poop. Finally, the need for the signs suggests not everyone follows these rules.

Would the sign be more effective if it did away with the politeness? Is the potential offender of this request going to be swayed by the politeness? There are other options for the sign. It could include no polite phrases. It could reference consequences, such as fines. It could appeal to shared norms (example: “keep our neighborhood clean”).

The politeness of the sign might be more about the people putting it up and upholding these guidelines. They want to reference a community atmosphere where people collectively care for the environment. Pronouncing a command does not seem to be as bad when couched in polite terms.

The comment of the man who talked to me hints at the ongoing issue at hand: a polite sign may not produce the desired outcome. But, if signs become more pointed or punitive, all semblance of peaceful neighborhood life might disappear.

Not needing “for sale” signs in wealthy suburbs

The Connecticut suburb of New Canaan is testing banning “for sale” signs:

The “trial ban” on real estate signs will run from July 1 to Jan. 1, according to Janis Hennessy, president of the New Canaan Board of Realtors.

The decision was made by members of the Board as well as the New Canaan Multiple Listing Service, “to further improve our already beautiful town,” Hennessy said in a release…

“Millennials and other potential buyers shop for real estate online and we believe they will be able to find New Canaan homes without these signs. We have seen how eliminating the signs has improved the look of other towns in Fairfield County without impacting the real estate markets. New Canaan Realtors believe it is worth a try here in the ‘Next Station to Heaven’ as well.”

The question of whether to implement a ban, such as a longstanding one in Greenwich, has been battered around New Canaan for some time. Saying the sheer number of ‘For Sale’ signs undermines the town’s attractiveness and ability of some property owners to sell, advocates for the change are cheering the decision.

There are four explanations provided or hinted for why “for sale” signs will not be allowed for six months:

  1. Younger homebuyers do not go driving around looking at homes; they look online.
  2. Other suburbs nearby already have a ban in place. New Canaan needs to keep up.
  3. Not having the signs makes the properties more attractive.
  4. There are too many “for sale” signs.

There may be a single underlying reason behind these explanations: the higher social class of residents in New Canaan. “For sale” signs may be gauche in a community that is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States (with Greenwich also as one of the wealthiest zip codes). Selling and buying property in a wealthy community does not have to be such a public event. The crass exchange of money for property is essential to American life but may be too prosaic to acknowledge in a place where residents could live in a myriad of places. Not making the sale as public (no signs plus pocket listings and listing only in certain places) may just add to the cachet of the community.

In a place where there are no “for sale” signs and where there may be limited community interaction (one of the findings of The Moral Order of a Suburb), there may be few indications that a property has changed hands. The cars in the driveway may change a bit and home repairs may happen here and there but the single-family homes may be more permanent than residents.

A man on a mission: correct Chicago area road signs

Steven Bahnsen is determined to change signs on the Dan Ryan Expressway from “22nd Street” to “Cermak Street.” This is not a singular issue for Bahnsen:

A retired Chicago postal worker, Bahnsen has spent years complaining about missing, inaccurate, poorly placed and misleading signs along Illinois roads.

He has written so many letters to government agencies that one exasperated Illinois Department of Transportation manager told staffers that they did not have to respond to him, according to a 2013 email Bahnsen obtained through a public records request…


As Bahnsen notes, 22nd Street was changed to “Cermak Road” by the Chicago City Council in 1933, following the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. The shooter had been aiming at President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The road is “Cermak” from 400 East to 4600 West, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation…

In response, IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said there are two exits from the northbound Dan Ryan to Cermak, and so two names are used. “As to not confuse the motoring public, the labels are different to distinguish between the two exits,” Urgo said in an email. She said that Exit 53C is labeled as I-55 N, Lake Shore Drive and 22nd Street, while exit 53A is labeled as Canalport Avenue and Cermak Road. As for whether it might be less confusing to refer to the roadway as Cermak in both cases, Urgo explained: “Because of the close proximity to each other, having the same exit sign posted in different spots could confuse people more.”

I am sympathetic to the general argument: signs that do not seem to match up streets can be very confusing to visitors. What particular roads and highways are called can be a very local thing. Just listen to a traffic report on the radio and between the speed at which the report is given and the local monikers for roads, it can be difficult to understand.

Bahnsen is not the only concerned resident when looking at street signs; see another case a few years back in Los Angeles where a resident took things into their own hands in correcting signs.


Rhode Island signs give cost, time under construction data

For over a year, Rhode Island has posted interesting signs in roadway construction areas:

Along with the name of the project, the signs note its estimated cost, the expected completion time, and a stoplight-style red, yellow and green dot system to show whether the project is “on-time and on-budget.”

“RIDOT believes the signs provide accountability and transparency by keeping the public aware of the status of the projects and helps keep the Department’s [project management] staff responsible for delivering them on time and on budget,” wrote DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin in an email…

Projects scheduled to finish on or before their expected completion date get green dots on their RhodeWorks signs. Projects that are behind schedule by six months or less get yellow dots on their signs and projects more than six months late get red dots.

There are no yellow dots on the budget side. Projects are either on budget and green or over budget and red.

Given how easy it is for infrastructure projects to go over time and over budget, this is an interesting approach. At the least, it provides the driver – the taxpayer – some idea of whether the project is meeting several key goals. However, as the article notes, it is less clear how this public information than translates into change in completing projects. Perhaps future signs should include additional information:

-The cost to everyone for the extra time and money involved (if the project is indeed over budget and past its intended completion date). Think of the business lost and the time wasted in traffic.

-Changes to the infrastructure process as a result of what was learned in this particular project.

-The punishment meted out to contractors and/or government officials for not meeting the goals.

I wonder if one incentive of making this data public is to overinflate cost and completion estimates so as to avoid public scrutiny through the signs.

The price to get your business on those blue highway amenities signs

It is a surprisingly complicated – and possibly costly – process to promote your business on a blue sign along the highway:

Roadside advertising programs are administered by individual states, though specific service signs like the one in the picture above tend to be farmed out to contractors. One of the biggest of these contractors is a company called Interstate Logos, which works with transportation agencies in 23 states to not only install the huge blue panels, but also to work with businesses to run the programs…

But even if your business meets all the requirements, and you’ve submitted your online application, there may be competition from other nearby businesses. As for which of those businesses get to be on the signs, that depends on the state’s policy. Colorado rotates the businesses at the end of each contract year, but other states like Michigan give preference to businesses nearer the highway, while still others like Washington use a first come-first serve (with waiting list) approach…

Typical mainline logo signs are about 48 inches by 36 inches, so based on WSDOT’s ballpark figures, it’s probably safe to figure about $300 to $500 per sign (this agrees with the Lexington Herald Leader’s claim of $1,253 for four logos)…

The sites says that in 2010, Kentucky Logos—contracted by the Kentucky DOT—paid the state $618,904.91. That’s great for the state, but according to the report, of the businesses on the 1,568 signs in the state, only 1 to 2 percent leave annually. So it seems the businesses are happy, too.

America: combining public services (highways) with business opportunities (advertising a select number of places for travelers to spend their money).

More thoughts on these signs:

  1. Why not include signs for big box stores? Places like Walmart or Target or Costco could provide most or all of these amenities in one stop.
  2. I don’t think the signs are as effective in denser areas where there a lot more options as you approach the exit. They can highlight a few options but you can already see a lot more signs in the distance.
  3. The lodging and camping signs seem outdated. How many people now drive down the highway and pick out a hotel at the side of the road? That sign space could be better used for other amenities.
  4. How effective are these advertisements compared to other forms? Does McDonald’s get a bigger return on the blue sign or a forty foot tall arch or a combination of both?

Watch for how Chicago’s new “Array of Things” signs communicate information

Big data about Chicago is to be communicated to the public in a few different ways, including from public signs:

But the information it gathers is only half of what the Array of Things does. It will communicate that data in a complete, machine-readable form online, for users to search, analyze, and adapt. The sensors, however, will also communicate the data to passers-by.And that presents an interesting design dilemma. Most public signage seems self-evident and intuitive, like stop signs and walk signals, but it tends not to change very much, and when it does, it’s iterative. What do you do when you’re designing a new form of public signage, on the cheap, and one that has the possibility to communicate a wide range of information? To find out, I spoke with the array’s designers, SAIC professor Douglas Pancoast and master’s student Satya Batsu.

The obvious approach would be to use a screen. But screens are fragile and expensive. “We knew we didn’t want to have screens,” says Pancoast. “We wanted it to be visible—it couldn’t be too small, it couldn’t be too big, and you couldn’t mistake it for traffic.”…

That also led the designers to the current design of the Array nodes. (Not final, necessarily—the 3D-printed screens are cheap, quickly produced, and replaceable in a few minutes with off-the-shelf hardware.) The hexagonal shape of the lights in a honeycomb pattern is meant to further distinguish the Array nodes from traffic signals—a simple, familiar shape that’s still different from the language of signage that will surround it on city streets…

From that, Pancoast and Batsu narrowed down the nodes to their current iteration, leaving open the question of what information they’ll communicate and how people will recognize it. And that’s where the community comes in. The Array of Things is “neighborhood asset mapping,” in Pancoast’s words; residents are likely to be interested in different data in different places. In one place, they might be interested in air quality, an “asymmetrical” issue across the city. In another, sound or temperature.

This could present some interesting opportunities for observation to see how residents will interact with these public signs. Will they stand around them? Glance at them quickly as they walk by? Ignore them? I’m curious to know what information these signs could provide on a regular basis that would be better than what residents could gather on their smartphones or that would add value to their daily routine.

New York MTA: don’t post signs showing subway passengers where it is best to board

A new underground group has been posting signs indicating where it is best to board a subway train but the MTA is not happy:

There is a body of knowledge that New Yorkers gradually accumulate through years of hardened subway travel. If a train car is mysteriously empty, don’t get in. Savor your cheese. Beware sharks. But the most prized wisdom is the understanding of where you need to board a train to make your transfer or exit most efficient. For example, when transferring to the L line from the A/C/E or F trains, some use the mnemonic “Down in Front,” meaning you want to be in the front of those downtown trains for the fastest transfer to the L. But what if you’re a novice who hasn’t yet acquired such deep insight? A group of rogue good Samaritans is here to help the newbs.

The Efficient Passenger Project is on a mission to put up signs throughout the subway system guiding commuters to the best spot to board a train in order to make the quickest exit or transfer. The anonymous participants have been placing “Efficient Passenger Project” stickers on and around the turnstiles in select subway stations, signaling the presence of a plaque on the platform that tells you exactly where to stand to make your commute most efficient.

So far the EPP has only rolled out the signage along the L line, but the website promises “more train lines in planning stages, proportional to demand.” The founder of the group tells Transportation Nation, “It’s a public, civic service. [The subways can be] a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

The MTA, however, has vowed to remove the unauthorized signs. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” says MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “And yes, regular customers don’t need these signs to know which car they should enter.”

The tone of this story as well as many of the commentors is that this sort of prized information shouldn’t be given away. Instead, it is insider information that should be hoarded by those who regularly use the system and can use it to their advantage over others, particularly tourists who just get in the way.

Contrast this approach with the approach in San Francisco. I remember seeing this for the first time and being shocked: people line up for the BART at particular markings on the platform. The train car doors open consistently at those spots and people file in. This is quite different from most cities where it is a mad dash to the open doors.

Perhaps all of this does indicate that urban culture in New York City in indeed more dog-eats-dog…