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Traffic signs, while often considered peripheral design elements, play a critical role in communicating a variety of information to users of the transportation system.  Signs are used to guide, warn, regulate, and convey information to vehicular and pedestrian traffic along the roadway.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Device (MUTCD) provides guidance on the design and placement of signs, including the size of the sign and text, placement along the roadway, and standard information to be conveyed.  Most states, including Missouri, use the MUTCD as the primary guide for developing roadway signage.  Some states, such as Illinois, provide supplemental guidance that builds upon the information in the MUTCD.  Engineers and contractors also use standard drawings, similar to those provided by the Missouri DOT, to ensure that signs are designed and constructed appropriately.

In the various place types discussed in this guide, traffic signs are often one of many traffic control devices that users must process while navigating streets.  Therefore, it is important to design and position signs in a manner which ensures that users have enough information to safely and efficiently navigate the arterial street network without becoming distracted or overwhelmed.

Decorative sign
Credit: CH2M HILL

The MUTCD specifications help ensure a minimum level of nationwide traffic sign uniformity.  Uniformity is a critical component of effective traffic sign communication, as users are better able to recognize and respond to familiar signs.  Although some jurisdictions may wish to modify the standard sign types to be more attractive, the majority of traffic signs are required to conform to the MUTCD specifications.  One exception is street name signs, which can be customized and used to help create a theme or identity for a place.  Many agencies are developing artistic street signs, such as the Washington Avenue sign in downtown St. Louis shown at right, to add character to the streetscape.

The ITE Traffic Handbook indicates that traffic control devices, including traffic signs, should:

  • Meet a need;
  • Command attention;
  • Convey a clear and simple meaning;
  • Command respect of the road users; and
  • Give adequate time for proper response/reaction.

Signing Along Neighborhood Shop Thoroughfares:

The following is a list of characteristics that influence signing along neighborhood shop thoroughfares: 

  • Significant pedestrian presence;
  • Multi-modal transportation;
  • Numerous parking configurations and regulations; and
  • Slower travel speeds.

Bring attention to pedestrians, bicycles and transit. Pedestrian presence requires effective communication with vehicular traffic. Traffic signs help convey important information to all modes of transportation along the thoroughfare.

Appropriate signage in advance of intersections and mid-block crosswalks is useful to prepare drivers for pedestrian crossing locations. Enforcement is also important, both to ensure that motorists abide by posted signs and to discourage jay-walking and other potentially dangerous behavior by pedestrians. The picture at right depicts a great example of actuated mid-block pedestrian crossing signs.

When a pedestrian presses the button below the sign, the lights on the sign begin to flash, signaling the oncoming traffic to stop. This treatment goes beyond our typical signage to place greater emphasis on the pedestrian. In addition to the sign, special pavement markings are placed in advance of the crosswalk to represent the "yield line" at which vehicles are to stop when the signs begin to flash. This additional provision provides a buffer zone between the crosswalk and the vehicular traffic, aiding the pedestrian's effort to visually confirm that oncoming traffic has come to a stop.

Just as traffic signs are important to control and direct vehicular traffic, pedestrian-scale signing is equally important along neighborhood shop thoroughfares. Way-finding signs help to effectively guide and inform the numerous pedestrians along the street. These types of signs help pedestrians navigate the many attractions and destinations along the street, creating a welcoming environment for them.

Signing should also be used to clearly communicate the presence of multi-modal uses and services along the thoroughfare. If bicycles are common along the corridor, appropriate “Share the Road” signs should be strategically placed along the thoroughfare as a reminder to drivers (see the Bicycles article for more information). Transit stops should include clear and visible signs that guide pedestrians between transfers and modes.

The photo at right demonstrates a simple sign treatment at an intersection. The sign prohibits right turns to vehicular traffic, but "excepts" bicycles. It's a simple but effective way to prioritize bicyclists and raise driver awareness to bicycle presence along the street. 

Reduce speeds early. Thoroughfares running through neighborhood shop areas may require speed reduction strategies. Appropriate signing alerting traffic of the impending speed reduction should be placed prior to entering the neighborhood shop area, to ensure that vehicular traffic can safely reduce its speed before entering the area.

Table 2C-4 in the MUTCD specifies the required distances for proper deceleration in speed reduction areas. The desired speed reduction must be accomplished well in advance of the neighborhood area to acclimatize drivers before they encounter pedestrians, storefronts, transit stops, and other potential distractions.

Give advance warning. Although the slower travel speeds in neighborhood shopping areas can make it easier for drivers to process information provided by traffic signs, these place types are often more congested. Drivers must process information on traffic signs amid a multitude of distractions such as cars parking, lane changes for turns, and advertisements. Signing should be placed far enough in advance to give drivers time to respond to information and make the necessary decisions and maneuvers.

Include signage for parking. Parking is often in high demand along neighborhood shop thoroughfares. Neighborhood parking strategies must include clear signage at strategic locations to direct people to appropriate parking facilities.

Use street signs to create identity. The large sign and text shown in the photo at right improve cross-street visibility for users of all travel modes. The sign support is also used to hold up signal heads, parking directional signs, and other types of signs.