Slowly but surely, the Streets Department is releasing its caps lock button. Since 2012, the city’s iconic street signs have shifted from the familiar all-caps format to a more proper capital initial letter, lowercase rest of the word. This subtle but significant local change came from a federal level—sort of.
In 2004, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued an ‘Interim Approval’ for use of Clearview font, to theoretically replace FHWA Series E-Modified, or “Highway Gothic.” It’s only in theory because the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (the “bible of traffic engineering”), officially released in 2009 after years of preparation (revised twice since then), did not necessitate a change to Clearview, but allowed for states and municipalities to move toward it. After extensive studies in Texas and at Penn State, Clearview was found to be significantly more legible than Highway Gothic, especially at night. (The New York Times Magazine explained this in an extensive 2007 story on how Clearview came into being.) The 2009 MUTCD, over 800 pages long, does not explicitly mention Clearview, but it does state that upper and lowercase letters are required and that they be retroreflective.
Dustin Summers, co-founder and creative director of the award winning design firm The Heads of State, is surprised that a shift to Clearview has taken so long. “Highway Gothic has a very patriotic feel,” he notes, “but it’s got a lot of intricacies that are pretty bad.” The bottom stroke of the descending lowercase ‘g’, for example, stops abruptly.
Federal highway engineers across the country have historically used Highway Gothic on interstate highway signs, an evolution of the font series crafted by the FHWA’s predecessor, Public Roads Association, during World War II, and modified after President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was adopted. It’s used not only on American freeways, but also in Australia, Brazil, Spain, and a slew of other countries. (Germany’s autobahns have used the font “DIN” since 1938; “Transport” has been the typeface of UK motorways since the 1950s.)
But city street signs have always maintained a certain local flavor. The white-on-black serif of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the black-on-white rounded-square of Haight & Ashbury in San Francisco: familiar signs mark these centers of tourism and do well on postcards and t-shirts and coffee mugs. In Philadelphia, our shouldered, six sided green signs with white letters—Metro signs in Streets Department parlance—have given direction since at least the early 1970s. And since the 1990s, they’ve packed more information than just the street name.
Chief traffic engineer Gerard Ebbecke pioneered the use of compass directions and ‘hundreds blocks’—the numbers indicating, say, the 1400 block between Broad and 15th Streets. Philadelphia was the first city in the US to add block numbers to street signs. Where no North-South-East-West is designated, the pipe character (a tall, straight line) is used.
It was the last period of major change for Philly street signs. Sadly, this change was punctuated by tragedy. Ebbecke and signal operator Irvin Oliver were killed by Streets employee David Cunningham during a meeting at the Streets Department Traffic Signal & Sign Shop in December 1998.
“I learned a lot from him,” Kasim Ali, Assistant Chief Traffic Engineer says of Ebbecke. “He was an outside-the-box guy.” Another innovation that came out of Ebbecke’s tenure was the addition of the Liberty Bell to signs for streets whose names are five letters or less.
These features lend a certain Philly panache to otherwise ordinary municipal infrastructure. Having lived in Portland, Oregon for over three years, this writer was perplexed how a city that gets so much praise for civic innovation could have such poorly functioning street signs. At night in the rain—which it famously does often in Portland—one often must stop at an intersection to just find the street sign, even on foot. The smallish rectangle signs are then surprisingly difficult to read.
“I’ve been to a lot of places around the world,” Ali says, “and you’d be surprised how good our signs are.” While it’s easy to say that a Streets Department traffic engineer is biased, it’s also easy to recognize the street signs are a point of pride among the department and its staff.
The Sign Shop, at G & Ramona Streets in Juniata Park, was designed by architect Joseph Varello and opened in 1958. It’s where the city’s signs come from: street signs, road signs, one way signs, stop signs, temporary no parking signs. That is to say, all of the city’s signs are made here in the city. All of the city’s official signs, that is. Signs like the triangular “Frankford Friendly” ones under the El in that neighborhood, for example, are brought about from community and/or business partnerships.
The process to manufacture the signs is as green as the signs themselves. The average life expectancy of a single street sign is 7-10 years, factoring basic wear & tear, fading, and whether it faces the sun. At life cycle’s end, each sign is recycled. The old sign is brought into the shop, where a layer of reflective, white vinyl is affixed to the face. The customary green face, then, comes off of an industrial plotter. A Graphtec Cutting Pro Model FC7000MK2-160 precisely cuts the shouldered sign shapes from rolls of green vinyl. The letters and numbers are then peeled by hand by Sign Shop employees, using an X-acto knife when necessary, and the excess vinyl is recycled. When the shape is ready, it’s moved to a hand-cranked press; a back layer of cellophane is removed, and it’s placed over the reflective vinyl, leaving the letters white and shiny, most important at night.
Shane Carmichael, one of the Sign Shop employees responsible for printing the signs, praises the Clearview typeface specifically for that last point. “The upper and lower cases are especially legible at night,” he says. “Lowercase letters are naturally smaller, which means you can make them bigger on the signs.”
One place this will be especially noticeable is on numbered streets. A past in-house initiative to make numbered street signs perform better was to add a second instance of the numbered name, e.g. “2nd Street 2nd.” Several of these are still visible on Spring Garden Street; the current shift is toward “(Liberty Bell) 2nd St.”
“There are roughly 24,000 traffic intersections in the city, and every last one of the signs has to be replaced,” Streets Department Chief Engineer Richard Montanez says. “But we don’t want to replace it till we feel the life of the sign has expired.”
Perhaps most notably for such a massive change, it’s covered under the standard operating budget. Thanks in part to lobbying by US Senator Pat Toomey on behalf of Lower Merion Township, whose cast iron street signs play a large role in the Main Line’s visual identity, the pressure put onto municipalities by the 2009 MUTCD was lessened when US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke out against the costs involved in a fast tracked overhaul of signs. And so the change continues its slow rollout, its completion expected by 2019.
“I honestly think it’s a good thing,” the graphic designer Summers says of the change to Clearview upper-lowercase typeface. “With a design project like this, it’s something you don’t want people to notice.”
Chances are, you’ll notice it now.
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The Streets Department manufactures three styles of street signs:
- Extruded SNS* signs: These are the smaller rectangular signs that extrude from poles, usually on smaller B-streets. They’re 5″ tall, with widths of 30″ and 36″.
- Overhead SNS signs: These larger rectangular signs are those mounted on the traffic lights at major intersections, such as Broad & Girard. Overhead signs are 18″ tall with widths of 60″, 72″, and 84″.
- Metro SNS signs: Most common, these are the six-sided, shouldered signs. They’re 12″ tall, with widths varying from 36″ to 48″. The heights can also vary depending on riders.
* SNS stands for Street Name Sign.
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Riders are elements added beneath the green street name proper. These are only added to signs by City Council ordinance, such as “renamed” designations like the Avenue of the Arts. The designations are only honorary; legally, John Coltrane Street (designated by City Council in 2010) is still 33rd Street. These honorary designations appear as white text on a red background. Chinatown’s Chinese characters appear in this manner, too.
Blue riders most frequently call attention to arterial streets, the major thoroughfares usually home to a commercial corridor and bus routes like Germantown Avenue, Broad Street, and Roosevelt Boulevard. Fairmount Park roads appear as white text on blue backgrounds, too.
Thick, white riders appear when a street doubles as a numbered state or federal route, like the PA-611 of Broad Street and US-30 of Lancaster Avenue. White riders also provide directional assistance, such as “I-76 this way” on City Avenue. One way signs are also affixed to this style of rider.
Without question, the most fabulous of the city’s street sign riders are those in the Gayborhood. In 2007, Mayor John Street dedicated the 36 new Council-approved street signs which carry a rainbow flag rider. Of course, those signs are in all caps, some of the last installed before the 2009 change, and will evolve to upper-lowercase in time with the rest of the city’s thousands and thousands of signs.