Street Signage and the Pedestrian Environment

We talk a lot on this site about the impact of street design of safety and a sense of place. Things like wide lanes, one way streets, signal coordination and car parking all degrade the neighborhoods they pass through, as they prioritize vehicle throughput over everything else. A similar problem is the use of highway-scale signs on city streets.

As a fairly new resident, I often find myself trying to read street signs while walking or on the bus, a basic navigational task made nearly impossible by the widespread absence of pedestrian-oriented signage. Not only do large signs encourage drivers to drive too fast and tune out their surroundings; signs intended only to be visible by approaching car traffic complicate navigation for the rest of us. It means that intersections of one-way streets have no street signs in the directions cars are not traveling, even though people clearly walk there.

Everything here is built for cars.

Where are the street signs? Only where cars can see them.

Highway signs seem only to give drivers a cue to speed up. It’s a subtle but powerful example of the way in which all thought is given to car movement and none to any other modes. Never mind the fact that many of these dangerous car-oriented signs are placed on poles on the pedestrian right of way as yet another obstacle to walking.

Any signs for people?

Design encourages drivers to ignore crosswalks, and even the walk signs don’t work.

Things like this can be added to the list of pedestrian hazards that demonstrate a complete lack of concern for anyone walking around: broken sidewalks, traffic signs blocking sidewalks, inadequate walk signal time, lack of crosswalks in obvious places or the expectation to cross three lanes of speeding traffic in a simple painted crosswalk… We still have uprooted trees from June blocking sidewalks all over the city.

For a city that promotes itself as a great place for bicycling, we still have a long way to go toward basic fairness and consideration for pedestrians. It’s time to start reclaiming our neighborhoods from the asphalt wastelands they have become, transforming them into places that are not a dangerous and confusing chore to navigate.

Jeremy Mendelson

About Jeremy Mendelson

Jeremy is a traveling geographer, transit planner, street designer, bike user and sustainable transportation advocate, originally from New York City and Boston. He has designed bus and rail networks for a wide range of transit agencies; toured dozens of cities and towns; and written extensively about transportation planning, social and environmental justice and equity. | Jeremy hosts the Critical Transit podcast focusing on sustainable transportation policy and practice. You can find him on the bus or driving a bicycle, inline skates, a pedicab or a truck filled with bikes. Or just follow him on Twitter @CriticalTransit.

11 thoughts on “Street Signage and the Pedestrian Environment

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Several thoughts:

    1. To Minneapolis’s credit, almost every intersection that has overhead signage on signal arms also has regular street name blades. In fact, at the intersection you posted (35th and Chicago), there are still such signs at the SE corner of the intersection.

    2. If you think those signs are large, you should see the ones on Hennepin and Humboldt at Lake Street. Those babies mean business.

    3. A related issue that I’m surprised you don’t mention is the gradual transition to overhead signal arms instead of just post lights. Basically every new street in Minneapolis has overhead signal arms for the busier street (and either post or post and arm for the minor street). They just upgraded all the signals on Chicago Ave this year. On the one hand, this probably does reduce the risk of someone running a red. On the other, it allows cars to go faster and pay less attention to what’s going on on the ground.

    4. Another related issue is the location of other signage. In most locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, sign posts are installed just to the back of the curb, creating a subtle barrier between the street and sidewalk. Unfortunately, in much of the first ring, sidewalks are narrow and signage is posted to the back of the sidewalk. This gives the feeling that the sidewalk is more like a paved shoulder that just happens to be made of concrete.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      That was just the best photo I had, but in many/most places (such as all along Lake St) there are only overhead signs designed to be readable to drivers only. This has become more of a problem in recent years, I agree.

      Sign posts need to be 1.5 feet from the curb edge for snow plowing and so that the mirrors of buses and trucks can overhang the curb. That’s usually why some signs end up at the back of sidewalk in cases where there is not enough ADA clearance otherwise. Still, I’m of the opinion that sign posts for drivers belong in the driving ROW and not in the way of pedestrians. How about a pole on the yellow line?

      The proper place for signal arms would be on the stop line: force drivers to stop in the appropriate place if they want to know when the light turns green. I think Paris does that. And along the same line, we’ve talked before about the merits of repealing the dangerous “turn on red” law.

      All of this supports the case for Minneapolis to invest some resources into addressing pedestrian issues and reviewing plans/projects from a walking perspective.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    And I for one think Minneapolis did an EXCELLENT job a few years ago with their new pedestrian / bicycle wayfinding signs. Very thorough and thoughtful.

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I’m not sure I really understand this post. If you’re having a hard time navigating with what you feel is a proliferation of signs that are too big, making all those signs smaller isn’t going to help. I like the trend towards signal mast arms and overhead signage. I also think the larger street signs intended for motorists to view are easier to read as a pedestrian than the alternatives. The critique about the absence of signs facing some directions on one-way streets is a legitimate concern.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      The issue is that large signs and signals change the perception of the environment enough to encourage more reckless behavior (such as “speeding” or driving dangerously fast) by drivers which in turn makes things more difficult and less safe for walking. Plus the fact that pedestrians are unfairly ignored in the design of such facilities. For example, a sidewalk may be 8 feet wide yet cluttered with sign poles, signal poles and signal boxes, making the “clear width” consistently available for use only 5 feet.

  4. Nathan

    [anecdotal blathering] It’s interesting to see other perspectives on the street signage here. I’m a new resident as well and my perception is that Minneapolis is pretty terrible with street signage. (How long after the Riverside reconstruction did we have to wait for street signs?) Most of this has been from the perspective of a person driving- for example, the intersection of Penn Ave N and Lowry Ave has a tiny pole, set back about ten feet from the intersection, with no signage on the overhead light arms. Maybe these have been corrected; I haven’t been there in a couple of months. My primary gripe is with the lack of block numbers, though- sure, it’s not all that necessary in south Minneapolis, but it sure would be nice in NE or North. St. Paul does it, at least on the pole-mounted signs.

    One thing that Denver does that I really like is putting STOP signs on both sides of the pole- it really helps when there are trees obscuring the signs. [/anecdotal blathering]

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      I question whether you would really make anything safer by making it less important to pay attention. If you can’t see a giant STOP sign, you’re either driving too fast, not paying attention to the task of driving, or both. Actually, one thing that would dramatically improve safety is to get rid of stop signs and signals: no more flying through an intersection at 40 mph when there’s a high risk of crashing if you do.

  5. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    Actually, if I remember correctly, the numbers on the St. Paul signs are on the wrong sign. In Chicago all of the streets in the grid are numbered. When you are traveling north you can look at the sign of each cross street and it will tell you how far north you’ve gone.
    If my memory serves, when you are traveling north in St. Paul and look at the cross street signs, they consistently tell you how far east or west you are (which doesn’t change!). To see how far north you are you have to turn your head (dangerously) and look at the sign for the road you are already on.

    Perhaps this is easier for the pedestrian!

    Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong, too. I didn’t go out and check before posting.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      That’s just a matter of preference. I found the Chicago number displays confusing as I was used to the St Paul method as used in Washington and Philadelphia among other places.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      Actually I would say that we have too many signals, too many signs, and too much text signage. In many cases signs merely duplicate painted lane markings. They are almost always designed with only drivers in mind and placed in the already restricted pedestrian space.

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