You’ll notice a new look for D.C.’s street signs in the coming weeks, months and years: The city has changed its design for the first time in several decades, and it’s slowly showing itself across the city.
Signs previously rendered in all capital letters will now be rendered in mixed case, following a new federal design standard. The pictures above, of two signs on the east side of Lincoln Park, show the difference.
The change was mandated in the latest, 2009 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the bible of traffic engineers (Section 2D.43). Mixed-case legends, studies have confirmed, makes signs legible from a greater distance, giving drivers more time to make decisions on the road.
When the new standards were mandated by federal regulations in 2010, the federal government required localities to replace noncompliant signs by 2018, leading many to push back at the significant cost of replacing otherwise functional signs during a time of significant budget stress. In New York, the backlash was particularly pronounced after cost estimates for the change reached $27.6 million.
Last August, the Obama administration eased some of the sign replacement requirements, and local transportation agencies can now replace noncompliant signs at their otherwise normal pace.
John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the city has been making street signs with the mixed-case design for about four months now. Lisle was unable to pinpoint a date when the all-caps design was introduced but said they date back at least to the early 1980s.
The new signs feature a standard Federal Highway Administration font on a green background. I’ve also noticed that new signs for numbered streets now include ordinals — e.g., 14th Street NW is indicated with “14th” not “14.”
Lisle said the signs will continue to be replaced on an “as-needed basis,” at no cost above and beyond the city’s typical sign replacement cost. It could be a decade or move before all the signs change over; Lisle said the materials used in the city’s signs can last 10 years or more, “but many signs get replaced sooner than that due to wear and tear.”
My personal opinion? The new signs are indeed easier to read, but they’re also less interesting than the old signs. Such is progress.