san francisco: the freeway spirit lives?

About 18 years ago, when I was chairing the Citizens Advisory Committee of the San Francisco County Transporation Authority, I remember a day when staff effusively advised that they'd gotten budget to put up green signs around the city to help motorists better identify the streets.  The green sign in this picture, for example.  


This is on Jones St. northbound approaching Sacramento St., but there are many similar cases.  (Trivia note: One of these signs appears in Gus Van Sant's fine film Milk, which is set in the 1970s.  It was the film's most glaring anachronism.)

Nobody asked my committee's opinion when these signs went up.  And today, briefly touring my old neighborhood, I find that these signs are still there.  Has nobody questioned them in all this time?

Most readers will see the issue at once, but if you don't, here we go:

The motorist faces a stopsign.  That means they should be looking at the crosswalk in front of them, and the other traffic approaching.  What's more, they should be stopped, or stopping, which means that their focal length should be short; they don't need a sign that's meant to be read at high speeds.   Yet high speed is implied by the green sign's large typesize, high position, and "freeway font"; the green sign has the same color, font, and typesize typically used on California freeways.

San Francisco's standard black and white streetsigns are the most legible I've encountered anywhere in the world.  They are a global model for simplicity, clarity, and grace.  There's one right below the green sign in this pic, in front of the tree.  The text on these signs is over 1.5 inches high.  If you can't read that black-on-white sign while stopped at a stopsign, or decelerating to it, your vision is so poor that you shouldn't have a drivers license.  Only seriously dangerous drivers need the green sign.

Then there's the question of focal height.  A sign placed very high, like the green sign here, is pulling the driver's eye away from the ground plane, which is where the squishable pedestrians and cyclists are.  Extreme type size also encourages reading the sign from further away, which means focusing further away, which means a greater risk of not seeing the pedestrian in front of you.

In short, the message of the green sign ("read me from a distance, like you're on a freeway, driving fast") contradicts the message of the stopsign and crosswalks.

Motorists choose their speed and focal length based on a range of signals, not just explicit commands and prohibitions.  These signs may be appropriate on high speed multi-lane streets, where you may need to change lanes to turn once you've recognized a cross-street.  But what are they doing at stopsigns?

I'm sure there are manuals that say this is compliant to standards.  But many bad ideas are endorsed by manuals.  Does the green sign make sense?  Argue with me.


PS:  "Wait, Jarrett didn't say he'd be in San Francisco, and he didn't call!"  Sorry, it was just two days, and I'll be back soon.

33 Responses to san francisco: the freeway spirit lives?

  1. Maybe? November 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    If you’re putzing around town trying to find Sacramento Street, this lets you know it’s coming up before you’re right on it and have to make a turn.

  2. MaxUtil November 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    @Maybe? – The sign is at an intersection with a stop sign. There is no benefit to knowing that it’s Sacramento from a large distance. You have to stop at the intersection anyway. I guess you could argue it allows you to find the street from more than 1 block away. But how often is that truly “useful” rahter than just “nice to know”. The value of the larger sign needs to overvalue it’s fairly clear risk of distracting the driver.

  3. Winston November 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    The question isn’t being able to read the sign when you’re at the stop sign, it’s being able to read the sign a block or 2 away so you can safely get into the appropriate lane to turn. I’ve found those signs helpful. Also, San Francisco’s black and white signs are not especially legible from a distance compared to more modern signs of the same size.

  4. Aaron Priven November 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    San Francisco’s regular street signs are also in FHWA Series typefaces, although they are all-caps and in different colors than freeway signs.
    I don’t think there’s any question that the bigger signs are more visible, especially where the lower sign may be off to the side, or blocked by a vehicle, wires, or other signage. I think one could make just as good a case that if drivers see the green signs before they get to the stop, that they’ll be more likely to be looking at the crosswalk instead of looking to the sides to try to find the street name signs.
    In any case I suspect the power of these signs to induce speed is relatively minor compared to lane width and other features of the street itself, although I suppose that could be studied.

  5. Eric O November 30, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Slightly off topic, but a sign like that is hardly possible where I live, because it would be lost in the tree canopy. We like low signs in the South and that means sticking them close to the corners.
    In Savannah, they use posts at the very corner. Which leads to this… These can double as traffic calming devices. 🙂

  6. Daniel November 30, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Here’s the Australian version: green coloured, big freeway font, but placed before the intersection, not at/after it.

  7. JJJJ November 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    Completely disagree. You need to know what street is it in advance, to pick your lane properly. And that white sign? Easily gets lost in the background. I didnt even notice it the first time I saw that picture.
    Being able to properly orient yourself is enormously important when it comes to designing a city.
    I dont understand in what universe are better, easier to read signs a bad thing.
    ” If you can’t read that black-on-white sign while stopped at a stopsign, or decelerating to it, your vision is so poor that you shouldn’t have a drivers license. ”
    So wait, you need to have a drivers license to use street signs? If said person has poor eyesight, then they are probably walking or biking. Why cant they take advantage of clear signs? Many streets only have signs placed on one side. Why force a low-vision pedestrian to cross the street to see if thats where they want to turn?

  8. JJJJ November 30, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    Eric O, Monterey has very similar signs.
    They are “illegal” (not compliant) under the MUTCD code for various reasons.

  9. Rob November 30, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    I’m not with you on this one. Most people don’t look at *any* non-regulatory signs; they’re not a distraction if you just ignore signs altogether. And regulatory signs are designed not to have to read them to understand.
    When I’m looking for a street in a city or neighborhood I don’t know, I’m always thankful for these signs. And it’s exactly the opposite of your argument: I don’t want to be *at* the intersection having to squint and look in every direction to find a street sign because I can’t then focus on what else is happening at the intersection. If I can get the information I need for wayfinding before I arrive at the intersection, I can be in the correct lane, and I can focus on what’s happening around me while I’m moving through it.
    Jarrett, could you be having a visceral response to a freeway aesthetic intruding into what you think of as personal urban space?

  10. Matthew Danish November 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    I remember the signs being posted about half a block before the actual intersection. Made it confusing for me on foot: I kept looking around for the street and then remembering that it was up ahead.

  11. jfruh November 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    From my days in the Bay Area, I was always a fan of the way that the street sign design let you know what city you were in: black on white for SF, white on brown for Berkeley, white on green for Oakland, white on blue (am I remembering this right?) for Albany, etc. A bit of local color.

  12. Kevin November 30, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    Lots of these in various parts of Ontario, but they tend to be either before the intersection or, at a signalized crossroads, on the same support bar as the lights.

  13. Scott Wood November 30, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    It’s nice to be able to see the street name from a distance when walking — it helps orient which way is which, especially when in an unfamiliar area leaving a building or transit. Unfortunately many places only put up such signs in the direction of vehicular travel, when the road is one-way.
    It’s nice while driving, too — more so in multi-lane situations where traffic might force you to choose well before the intersection, but even with no lane choice I’d want to be able to spend my stopped time looking for pedestrians and cross traffic, not trying to look at all four corners to see where the sign might be (if it’s on the near side, it might not even be readable from where I’m stopped, due to the angle), hope that there’s nothing blocking my view, etc.
    And legally I’m supposed to signal my turn before I get to that stop sign.

  14. John W December 1, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    I agree with the points above – the larger sign means you can make your “do I need to turn here” decision earlier, leaving you to focus on what’s happening at the intersection. I think one of the clearest uses of signage is in downtown Vancouver (, above the crosswalks at the intersection. Because of the positioning, you can also see exactly where subsequent intersections are from a greater distance.

  15. Alex December 1, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    Thanks for elucidating the trouble I sensed with some signs I just saw in Madison, WI. They were huge signs advising drivers of their legal obligation to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, but they were mounted 40′ above the crosswalk, drawing the motorists’ eye away from any pedestrians that might have been trying to cross.
    There’s nothing wrong with clear signage, but if you don’t know your way around a neighborhood, the only sign you should be looking for is the circle P. Cars are just too dangerous to trust to people who are distracted by being lost.

  16. John December 1, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    Agree that they shouldn’t be posted so high but I think the white on green and the font is more visible and legible on the new signs.

  17. Lee December 1, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    The compromise here is the “Next Street: ” signs that exist a couple hundred feet before intersections in some parts of the country (obviously would need less distance in urban SF). It gives wayfinding information without distracting from the intersection AND gives time to move into the proper lane.
    While that sounds overly car-centric, I will also point out that for those who carshare and drive only when it’s necessary, this kind of wayfinding is doubly important. A mental map of the city when walking/transit is VERY different than when driving. One suddenly have to care about one-way streets, which lane to be in, etc. (plus it’s likely to be in an unfamilliar part of town, hence the car), and additional information to help know which street is coming up next can be VERY helpful.

  18. Tom West December 1, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Related pet peeve: one-way streets that only include signs namingthe cross-street for the direction of traffic flow.
    So, if you’re walking against the traffic flow, you can’t know what cross-street you’ve come to until you cross over it and look back the other way.

  19. Andrew December 1, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    What harm does it do to have larger signs like this that can be read from far away? Every major intersection in Toronto has a sign like this, it makes it easier for all road users.

  20. Alex December 1, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    I’m seeing many opinions without any empirical backing here. One would need to study how these freeway-styled signs affect collision rates at such intersections before claiming that they will decrease or enhance safety.

  21. Tara G December 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    I think JJJJ is right on the money here. These signs are not just for drivers. They’re for pedestrians and bicyclists. (And… wait for it… transit users. Surely all of us have found ourselves on an unfamiliar route in an unfamiliar place, craning our neck to see some landmark or street sign out the window so we can figure out whether we’ve already missed our stop or not.)
    Nevertheless I do appreciate that the big green signs scream generic, and SF is anything but a generic place.

  22. TheSquirrelfish December 1, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    San Francisco street signage is difficult.
    I like the readability of these signs, although I understand your point of taking the gaze ‘up’. On the other hand I feel the most dangerous thing I do while driving in the city is look for street signs/numbers etc while moving because any time I’m doing that I’m not paying as active attention to the immediate surroundings of my car or bike.
    I find it particularly confusing when the sign is past the street as in this photo – I believe these would be best placed about a quarter to half a block before the intersection to make an appropriate lane choice and indication to move in a planned and safe manner.

  23. JJJJ December 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Tara G, good point. When riding a Muni bus for the first time ever last September, I had to be looking out the window to see what street we were crossing to know when to ring the bell. No way in hell I could have read the tiny white signs, at an angle, through dirty glass, at speed.
    If it weren’t for those big green signs, I would have missed my stop.

  24. Pat L December 2, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    Pretty much these exact signs are common in Chicago, centered above the street at major instersections, but only in combination with traffic lights. I can’t recall ever seeing one at a stop sign. Unless that’s a multi-lane road (looks unlikely from the picture, but I can’t tell), I don’t see why you would need to read the street name that far ahead.

  25. Julian Wearne December 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    I certainly agree with the above commentators about the benefits of being able to see the street name well before the intersection. It helps regardless of how you are travelling. One of my biggest peeves with trying to find my way around Melbourne is that so many streets are poorly signed, especially when small roads intersect large roads. The small roads are nearly always clearly posted, whilst it seems the people responsible for putting signs up seem to think everyone knows the locations of the major roads and therefore signs are ignored, or else the signs are posted back from the intersection so that drivers will be orientated before they hit the intersection. Great if you’re a driver, next to useless if your a pedestrian because generally you’re not looking for the sign until you’re at the intersection.
    However, I also see your point about it being distracting at the intersection itself. Perhaps the better combination would be the more standard corner poles, and an easier to read from a distance sign at a lower height before the intersection.

  26. Danny Howard December 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    This particular green sign looks like a problem, yes, but the green signs on the median of wide boulevards like 19th Ave are helpful: if you are not in the right lane they are a reminder to merge because your little white sign is coming up.

  27. alurin December 5, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    As a Massachusetts resident, I would be grateful to have any signs at all.

  28. Jacob December 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    I agree with Jarett. When all the signs in San Fran are B/W, you will be looking for a B/W sign. A sign placed 20 feet above others will not be seen by transit users, pedestrians and bike riders don’t need to know 300 meters in advance what the next street is, and car drivers don’t need 100% more sign to look at. Freeway font in not freeway? Nope, the world has already had enough of speedways in cities.

  29. Tsuyoshi December 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    It’s been mentioned already, but they have a similar style of signs for major streets in Chicago (and the suburbs). I found them to be extremely helpful when I lived there (which was back when I still drove). But major streets in Chicago don’t usually have stop signs, so it’s not really the same.

  30. Alan Kandel December 10, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    What do you have to say about billboards that are seemingly a dime a dozen in places? If you think that green street identifying sign is a distraction, billboards can be even more so.
    I remember traveling to Vail, Colorado in the ’80s and I recall not seeing a single one along Interstate 70 there. I guess I must have been on the lookout for billboards, because I noticed there weren’t any.
    Unneeded signs are just one more thing drivers don’t need to distract them.

  31. Jarrett at December 10, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Alan.  Yes, and wars on billboards have been going on for a long time.  Some US states and may cities have significant limits on them.

  32. stevenj December 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    The large green signs were put in when Frank Jordan was mayor. Drivers have always had trouble negotiating SF’s streets and particularly downtown where being alert is paramount and finding a corner street sign sometimes difficult due to multiple distractions. The need for them at the time was not the issue, it was the aesthetics. They were cheaply and hurriedly thrown up, sometimes in neighborhoods that didn’t need them. Personally I loved the old corner street signs used prior to the 1980’s. They were baked enamel with raised black borders around a white field with 4 or 5 inch raised black capital letters. They had a solid substantial look. Perhaps one day when the City is again flush with cash some future mayor will assign someone the task of taking those large green signs down and replacing them with something more distinctive to their surroundings and coordinated logically at or near intersections.

  33. Jean March 3, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Is there any data comparing accidents and speeding on streets with these big signs vs streets with less conspicuous/distracting street signs? If not, maybe it’s time to do some research.