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John S. Allen

Pedestrian signs increasingly are being installed in Massachusetts based on a process that evidently involves a community's receiving a grant, then arriving at its own design. This phenomenon began, as I recall, with a research project through the Harvard School of Public Health.

The result is a proliferation of different kinds of signs, many consisting of nagging warnings about fines which are very rarely imposed, in tiny print which is illegible to drivers. Sometimes a whole forest of signs appears. Human factors analysis tells us that road signs need to be large and graphic, or use few words so they are understandable at a glance. How are the nag signs to be read, and by whom? By pedestrians, to make them feel better? Yes, the signs can be read by pedestrians walking along sidewalks. By drivers stopping 100 feet short of the crosswalk to take a reading break? Not very likely except in a traffic jam.

I will grant that there has been a noticeable improvement in courtesy of drivers toward pedestrians in Massachusetts in recent years. Probably, drivers read these signs when they are pedestrians, or stuck in traffic jams. The yellow-red-white striped pattern of many of these signs has itself become a graphic icon, like a Chinese pictogram. It does not convey a direct graphic message like the stylized walking person on a conventional crosswalk sign.

An unintended consequence: with better behavior toward pedestrians, motorists now often also yield right of way to bicyclists as if the bicyclists were pedestrians rather than vehicle operators. This phenomenon causes unnecessary delays, and can lead to confusion and crashes. A particularly perilous situation occurs when a motorist in the inside lane on a multilane street yields to a bicyclist arriving from the opposite direction and preparing to turn left. There are an illustration and description of this situation in my Bicycling Street Smarts.

A tiny-print nag sign, instead of a
large, graphic sign, North Truro, 2003.

DSCF0005yield to pedssm.jpg (14949 bytes)

Brandeis University, in Waltham, places a version of the same sign on a post
with a concrete base that can do some real damage to a car.

DSCF0317 Brandeis signsm.jpg (27294 bytes)

Complex of signs, one plastered over another, in Sudbury, 2005.
The tiny-print sign is different from both in the examples above, (note STOP rather
than YIELD). The middle-of-the street post, here pulled aside as school is out,
is the modern, flexible kind and includes a miniaturized yield triangle and
ped-in-crosswalk sign. as well as a nag warning.

DSCF0028Sudbury sign small.jpg (30752 bytes)

One, two, three signs, none graphic, in a totem pole arrangement,
Route 27, Acton, 2003. If you take the time to read these,
you're not watching the road.

DSCF0011pedsignssm.jpg (36414 bytes)

DSCF0328Central Sq1uare sign.jpg (20191 bytes)Sign at Carter Street, Central Square, Waltham (at bottom of photo). The yield sign is subsumed to small-print verbiage. Several of these signs have appeared at crosswalks in Central Square in 2005-2006.


An older sign on a post at the intersection of Main Street and
Hammond Street, Waltham. The standard diamond-shaped ped
warning sign is subsumed into a tiny image in the middle of the
verbose nag sign. This intersection rated as the worst for pedestrians
in Boston's western suburbs for several years in the late 1990s.
For more than a year during that time, one of the pedestrian
pushbuttons was broken. Is the intersection better now? If so, why?

024_21AWaltham ped sign small.jpg (14421 bytes)

Another somewhat similar sign as used in Brookline.

DSCF0097Sign on barrel.jpg (20905 bytes)

This sign is beat-up because Brookline installs it on top of a plastic barrel in the
middle of the street and vehicles knock the barrel over. Here's one on
Longwood Avenue,  2002. The barrel reduces lane-sharing
width on this street which is heavily-used by bicycle commuters..

DSCF0016 crossing.jpg (61371 bytes)

Overhead signals and sign, with another type of illegible nag sign (at right)
on Broadway just south of Alewife Brook Parkway, Somerville. In-the-pavement
flashing lights were tried here but they broke down within a few months.

002_00A Broadway near ABP.jpg (31503 bytes)

Flashing overhead sign with flashing amber blinking lights
at side of roadway, on Broadway near Kendall Square, Cambridge

Broadway yield sign.jpg (27405 bytes)

On Memorial Drive at Western Avenue, Cambridge
Motorists are always supposed to yield to
pedestrians and cyclists in the crosswalk.
What is the point of this small-print reminder then?
Probably a crash occurred here and "we had
to do something." And for those who don't understand
the graphic no-right-turn symbol, let's hope they read English.
Photo by Paul Schimek

DSC02673Western Avenue.jpg (17472 bytes)


At an entrance to Boston Scientific, along the
Assabet River Rail Trail in Marlborough. Graphic-
designer work with a cute swoosh and novel color scheme.
Nonstandard dual-image diamond-shaped warning sign
miniaturized and made subservient to the written word.

DSCF0277ARRT sign at Boston Scientific cropped.jpg (12862 bytes)

The lighter side -- a couple of artistically-modified signs in Newton.
This one,  a crosswalk sign in more than one sense,
is/was near the City Hall, June 2005

DSCF0205Ped bearing cross.jpg (12599 bytes)

And another one, on Homer Street approaching Newton Centre,
March 2006. See explanation below.

DSCF0226Hula hoop sign small.jpg (38693 bytes)

What's with the Hula Hoop?


Just of reference purposes: The hula-hooping ped crossing sign is the mark of the devoted fans of the band "The String Cheese Incident." They are a "hippie rock" band somewhat in the vein of the Grateful Dead. This sign adaptation marked the crosswalk in front of San Francisco City Hall for months after they performed here a couple years ago.

Nick E. Carr
Bicycle Safety Program
Municipal Transportation Agency
San Francisco, CA USA