Road Signs are Visual Pollution: How Can We Reduce Them?

When I stopped full-time work, I had planned to start the Anti-Sign League, with the aim of reducing the ridiculous number of signs that exist on roads (and everywhere) these days.  Signs are multiplying and taking over the streets!  Signs really spoil the view.  It’s visual pollution and our society should address it.  But how big a problem is it?  And what should we do about it?

As my first project for the Anti-Sign League, I conducted a little survey.  I drove around my local semi-main streets – not freeways or highways, but significant transport routes.  I drove 12 kms.  I grouped signs into parking/no parking, speed, traffic conditions and directions (children, cyclists, trucks, roundabouts, islands, no entry, turn left etc), bus/tram, stop and other signs.  I did not count traffic lights and lots of other visual pollution, such as street signs, light poles, railway crossings etc because we seem to need them.  I only counted signs on the driving side of the road.  Visually, there are double this number since many signs are repeated on the other side.

Findings:  273 signs in 12 kms!

I found 273 signs in less than 12kms – 23 signs per km or 1 sign every 50 metres.  The longest gap between signs was approximately 500m.  Driving that 500m felt completely different – like driving into the country!

The 273 signs were:

– 121 parking/no parking

– 73 road conditions and directions

– 40 bus/tram

– 26 speed

– 4 stop

– 9 other

Before I started, I had expected to find a lot of speed signs.  Speed limits seem to change all the time.  No sooner do you adjust to a speed than it changes.   And I did find a lot.  The speed limit changes every 0.5km on average.  That seems ridiculous in a fairly homogenous area.

But I was staggered by the amount of parking signs and the host of other instructions a driver is expected to absorb while they drive.  Perhaps because I live here I don’t notice the parking signs, because I’m not looking to park on the street very often.  Many of them are near ends of streets, where the road rules already tell you how close you can park without breaking the law.  But these signs are now proliferating, as people – desperate to park when inadequate parking is provided – use any space they can find.

And the huge variety of road conditions and traffic signs also shocked me.  Do we need a ’roundabout’ sign when we approach a roundabout?  Do we need ‘keep left’ signs when approaching an island in the middle of the road?  Did anyone think of going to the right???   Do we need a picture of children when approaching a school crossing?  I thought schools were for children…  Do we need a sign saying ‘train crossing’ as we approach a level crossing?

And the same for busses and trams.  Don’t we know when we see a bus stop that the bus needs room to stop and it isn’t a parking area??

Clearly our signage has gone crazy.  We need to do something about, or the signs will really take over the streets.

The Anti-Sign League Solutions

Parking.  In the UK and I think parts of Europe, they mark lines on the ground to indicate parking availability.  As I recall, two lines means no parking at all, one line means parking with some limits and no lines mean parking is OK.  And they indicate times (1, 2, 3 hours) with a single sign in the middle of the area, not signs every 50 metres.  We should adopt this.

Traffic conditions and directions.  We should use common sense, rather than try to define the universe legalistically.  Many of the current signs are not really needed.  They are duplicating what a driver already knows.  Get rid of them.

Busses/trams.  Mark the bus/ tram zone on the road and eliminate all signs except the one indicating the stop, which has the timetable on it.

Speed. Standardise the speed zones into 100, 80, 60, 40 (or any standard set you like that only has four or less steps in it).  This overcomes the 60/50/60/40/60/50 conundrum when driving on minor roads.  They all become the standard 40 and we understand that that type of a road has that type of standard speed limit (whereas currently it could be 60, 50 or 40 – who knows and who remembers what the last speed sign was, since we’ve seen so many so quickly?).

In the 12kms I drove, all the roads would have been obviously 60 or 40 and only a few signs would be needed.  All school signs would disappear from back roads, as it would be 40 everywhere.  Electronic signs could be used on 60 roads for 40 when schools are in and kids are crossing.  Otherwise it is 60.

The Anti-Sign League outcome:  prettier streets, less driving stress

I think we could get rid of 80% of signs if we used road markings, common sense and not legalese and standard speed zones.  Our streets would look nicer, driving  would be easier and I bet costs of this type of road maintenance would reduce significantly.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Road Signs are Visual Pollution: How Can We Reduce Them?

  1. Interesting research & findings Graham. I agree with your sentiments re local neighbourhood signs to some extent, but am much more upset by the growing number of huge billboards appearing with just advertising messages. Of particular concern are those on freeways such as Citilink resembling giant TV screens with moving images. Our eyes should be on the road while on such congested and often challenging road roadways. Apart from the visual pollution you refer to, these signs are a potentially dangerous distraction.

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  2. Good point David. Perhaps you should start the Anti-Billboard League/Association! Maybe we could then merge the Anti-Sign League with the Anti- Billboard League. I am currently in Europe (not the UK) and what is noticeable is the relatively small number of billboards and amount of street advertising compared with Australia. In one way it seems dull…but really it is a pleasure not to see all the rubbish.

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  3. Hi Graham,
    I’m with you on this, even though I’m an engineer! The proliferation of signage has several potentially perverse outcomes that come to mind.
    Firstly driver or road user distraction. Am I driving my car, bike, walking or whatever, or trying to read the litany of signs, with potential perverse safety outcomes?
    Secondly, community anger at being fined for not complying with the bewildering and often inconsistent signage? How many times do you see people studying parking signs to try to comprehend what they mean?
    And I agree that you can’t legislate culture or common sense – but it is a regrettable current societal and government trend. Signage should be a last resort, rather than a knee jerk reaction to problems real or perceived.
    It has also struck me on a number of occasions that you could mount a sound legal defence to a speeding or parking fine on the basis that a person could not reasonably comprehend signage due to the combination of both the number of signs and/or the speed at which you drive a vehicle.
    Only this week I noted a “feral” 60kph speed limit sign that had not been covered within a 40kph construction zone. Even the traffic management contractor got it wrong.
    Good design principles and traffic management should assist road corridor users. Some of the practices you refer to are often little more than lazy engineering or unsubtle revenue raising.
    Maintain the rage.
    Phil

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