Friday, September 16, 2011

Highway Signage

With only days of summer left, it’s time to wrap up our vacation. During our brief but glorious excursion we made notes of things we should look up. The last item on that list reads “Highway Signs.” We’re still a young country, but our signage has become confusing. (But has it ever been otherwise? Doubt it.) Thus, for instance, we knew the Interstates (of course). We’d guessed that the white diamond with an M on top must be a Michigan State highway. County roads were marked as such. But what about all those shield-shaped signs?

The hierarchy of signage is shown by the arrangement of the display above. The shields turn out to have been national, thus U.S. highways; not the mighty four-lane Interstates, to be sure, but their humbler predecessors. Today I discovered that the signage for U.S. highways that’d we’d seen was the older version. The official form, recommended by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is a white shield over a black background, with lettering in black. But FHWA’s authority does not compel the states to change all signage; hence many of the old signs are still up. And even older version may be glimpsed here and there. Had we seen those, we wouldn’t have been puzzled. Those actually identified the state where the highway ran—but underneath, clearly spelled out, was the U.S. designation, thus US Highway 23 in Michigan.

While looking up these matters on the web, I discovered something interesting. Signage, evolving over time, has lost information. Not uniformly, not everywhere, but information has been sacrificed for uniformity and to save money. That’s already visible in the previous graphic. The oldest sign for a U.S. highway is much more informative than the new. What follows are two graphics showing signage for four states. None follows FHWA’s recommendation that all states should adopt the Michigan style State Highway sign, thus the diamond with a letter or combinations of letters identifying the state—in abbreviation, of course. Fast. Quick. Nanosecond. In this sampling Kansas uses the sunflower symbol, but its old sign is more informative. The Texas signage hasn’t changed much. Minnesota’s has improved. Its 1948 sign tells you nothing at all; the current one carries both the state’s name and outline. Missouri has retained its outline, but its 1948 sign still has the name.

Finally, some changes at the very top (the Interstate) and the bottom (county signs):

In earlier times, Interstate signs carried the name of the state through which the Interstate was passing now. That sometimes useful information has been sacrificed to cost control. The two county signs, both for Michigan, have retained their information. The change has been to make Michigan counties look just a little sexier—in the current signage, anyway.

To see all current state highway signs look here, to see the 1948 signage, here.

We can cross this item off our list…and turn to the task of making room for our plants in the basement in anticipation of the first frost advancing toward us from the future. Our furnace came on as I was struggling with images this morning.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, that is interesting. I had no idea that the little sheild shaped signs were US highways. And sign, yes, they are fun, like license plate!


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