Sunday, February 8, 2015

Freeway style signs send the wrong message at the intersection

Between 1996-1998, the Four Corners intersection was widened to increase traffic flow through our community.  Both Colesville Road and University Boulevard had new turn lanes added to eliminate impediments to through traffic caused by turning vehicles.  The reconfiguration was also designed to make it easier for drivers to reach the Beltway with minimal delay by adding an additional through lane in each direction to Colesville Road.

As part of the intersection reconfiguration, the State Highway Administration installed new signs to aid in wayfinding for drivers passing through the area.  These large overhead signs were placed on approach to the intersection and at the turns for the jug handles.  Unfortunately, these signs make Four Corners look more like a truck stop on a rural interstate rather than the unique and historic community that it actually is.    

A sign over the westbound lanes of University Boulevard in the heart of the commercial district.  Photo by the author.

The signs are not needed in Four Corners, and their presence harms our community. The following are a few reasons why these signs are inappropriate for an area like Four Corners.

1.  They diminish pedestrian safety    

The design of the intersection, along with the presence of interstate style signage, sends a strong message to drivers that they are on a high speed highway.  Because of this feeling, motorists are less inclined to look out for road users they would expect to see on a slower speed street through a commercial district, such as pedestrians and cyclists.  The issue here is that Four Corners has many pedestrians, since it is home to dozens of local businesses which are frequently reached on foot, and it is home to one of the largest high schools in the state.  

 A driver coming off the Beltway and travelling through the intersection sees the same style of signage and the same travel lane widths as the highway the just left, yet they are expected to slow down and watch for pedestrians.  When all the visual cues received by a driver are telling them to go fast, it should come as no surprise that motorists pass through Four Corners at 50 or 55 MPH with regularity.

Signs denoting the crosswalks around the intersection are dwarfed by wayfinding signs that look like they belong be on the Beltway, and not on a community street with pedestrians, schools, and businesses

2.  They distract from local businesses 

In Four Corners, University Boulevard and Colesville Road are our main streets, and nearly all commercial establishments in the community are located on these two roads.  Since these roads are designed for speed, and that design is reinforced through inappropriate signage, local businesses are less likely to be noticed by those passing by.  When someone is driving by at 50+ MPH on a road that feels more like an interstate than a community street, they don't have much time to take in their surroundings.      

An oversized sign looms over the shops on the northwest corner of the intersection
Thankfully, our local businesses are mostly supported by residents who live here, so they aren't loosing out too much.  However, as stated earlier, the poor road design and visual cues in the area make for an unpleasant walk, which deters foot traffic to these businesses.  

3. These signs aren't needed  

If this were the 90's, the argument could be made that these signs provide vital direction to motorists unfamiliar with the area.  But in 2015, the argument has much less merit.  

This is the era of GPS and satellite navigation devices.  Most phones have a GPS feature or downloadable app, such as Google Maps, which provides drivers with turn by turn directions to anywhere they need to go.  Furthermore, most cars built from 2010 onward have a GPS built into the center console of the vehicle, which also provides turn by turn directions.  If a motorist has neither of those, standalone GPS devices are very inexpensive.  Any driver passing through Four Corners for the first time is likely taking directions from a device within their vehicle, not a huge green sign hanging over the road.  If these signs provide any service, they are simply there to reaffirm what a driver just heard their GPS tell them.    

These large sings are from a past era, and it is time for them to go.  Removing these signs would be an important first step towards returning human scale to the intersection through better road design, making Four Corners look and feel like the vibrant and diverse community we know it to be.      

Removing unnecessarily large signs will help Four Corners look more like community again, and less like a truck stop.


  1. I agree with your larger point, but I hardly think we should remove street signs because some drivers have GPS.

  2. What would be the alternative? There is not a lot of real estate for lower slung signage that won't block views.