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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 that ensures that users have enough information to safely and efficiently navigate the arterial street network without becoming distracted or overwhelmed.

Decorative Washington Ave 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
  • Give adequate time for proper response/reaction

Characteristics that influence signing along small town downtown streets:

  • Midblock crossing sign
    Credit: CH2M HILL
    Significant pedestrian presence
  • Numerous parking configurations and regulations
  • Slower travel speeds

Pedestrian presence requires effective communication with vehicular traffic.  For small town downtown streets to be great, pedestrians must feel safe and respected by adjacent vehicular traffic.   Traffic signs are one way to help achieve this objective. Appropriate signage in advance of intersections and mid-block crosswalks is useful to prepare drivers for pedestrian crossing locations. 

Pedestrian actuated signal
Credit: CH2M HILL

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. 

Advance yield line
Credit: CH2M HILL

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 small town downtown streets.

Wayfinding signage
Credit: CH2M HILL

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.  Way-finding places a priority on pedestrian travel along the street, and it can also visually enhance the streetscape.

Signing should also be used to clearly communicate the presence of multi-modal uses and services along the street.  If bicycles are common along the corridor, appropriate “Share the Road” signs should be strategically placed along the street as a reminder to drivers. 

Bike turning sign
Credit: CH2M HILL

But again, we must go beyond the mere accommodation of other modes such as bicycles; we must prioritize them.  Signing is just one of many ways to accomplish such a prioritization. 

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. 

Parking is often in high demand (and sometimes short supply) along downtown streets.  In many cases it can be difficult for drivers to find additional parking in off-street lots or adjacent structures in the absence of appropriate signing along the main street.  Attention should be given to placing these signs at strategic points in advance of the entrances or crossroads leading to additional parking.  Making parking easy to find goes a long way in earning repeat business from satisfied visitors.

Although the slower travel speeds on small town downtown main streets can make it easier for drivers to process information provided by traffic signs, these place types are often more congested.  Therefore, drivers must process information on traffic signs amid a multitude of distractions (e.g. cars suddenly braking to park along the street, changing lanes to make a turn, navigating one-way streets, and advertisements in store windows along the street).  Signing should be placed far enough in advance to give drivers time to respond to information provided by the sign and make the necessary decisions and maneuvers.

Arterial streets running through these place types often require speed reduction strategies.  Appropriate signing alerting traffic of the impending speed reduction should be placed prior to entering the downtown area or mixed-use district.  The traffic signs must be placed far enough in advance to ensure that vehicular traffic can safely reduce its speed before entering the place, especially in small town downtowns.  Table 2C-4 in the MUTCD specifies the required distances for proper deceleration in speed reduction areas.  Again, it is recommended that the desired speed reduction be accomplished well in advance of the actual place in order to acclimatize drivers to the new travel speed before they encounter pedestrians, storefronts, transit stops, and other potential distractions.