SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

It’s for good reason that traffic engineers are not trained to indulge in flights of fantasy:  too many lives are dependent on the safety of our transportation system.  So it’s not surprising that the road design professional organization’s “bible” – the American Association of State of Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guide to the “Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” (the “Green Book”) – evolves very slowly.   However, a negative effective of this conservatism – combined with the dominance of automobile-focused businesses and professionals within transportation organizations — is that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been very slow to incorporate the rapidly-evolving best practices for bicycle and pedestrian movement in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  As a result, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has published an Urban Bicycle Design Guide that they update annually.

In recent years, the Transportation Departments of a number of cities in eastern Massachusetts have been (relatively) rapidly upgrading their bicycle and pedestrian facilities.   Enough has been done that we can begin evaluating what works and what doesn’t, and even describe our preferences.  It turns out that there often are several ways to accomplish the same result, that there is room (and need) for engineering creativity – and in this age of crowd sourcing it makes sense to listen to what users think.  The key thing is that many of the “better” ideas don’t cost anything more than the “ok” treatments – they simply require that the designers be willing to learn from others.   What follows is an attempt to not merely praise basic improvements but to encourage experimentation and improvement.   And I’m sure readers can add to this list….Please do!



Undernourished Crosswalk Markings– Simply putting a line, or even a double line, across the road isn’t good enough in busy intersections or any place where the young, old, or infirm might be.  It’s not enough good enough to do skinny zebra lines.  Why not go for the fat zebra – bold, wide, and hard to miss…with a separate Stop Line for cars several feet before the walkway to reduce the tendency to creep up.

                                        <– ok….better–>         

Cobblestone Crosswalks – You can use paint to distinguish the pedestrian crosswalk from the road.  Or different types of paving materials, which add an aesthetic appeal.  But rather than create a cobblestone crosswalk – which makes it really hard for wheelchairs, baby carriages, shopping carts, and anyone unsure of their footing — why not put a border of them on the traffic side of the crosswalk where they could act like a rubble strip for creeping-up cars?

The way to do it –>  

Misplaced Cross Walks and Curb Cuts – Why not put the cross walk right at the corner?  And why are so many curb cuts put in such stupid locations?  (And while I’m asking, why don’t East Coast cities don’t use the “mountable curbs” common in Western states?)

        <– Both of these go straight into fences –>  

Stop Signs and Traffic Lights – Four-way stop signs are cheaper than traffic lights (which cost hundreds of thousands to install and several thousand a year to operate), avoid wasted time (and pollution) by forcing drivers to wait in an empty intersection, and safer because there’s no advantage trying to speed up to beat the red.  Adding “Give pedestrians and cyclists priority” signs wouldn’t hurt.  Of course, this probably is most appropriate when cross-road traffic is relatively light.  And both school children and elderly residents might benefit from the certainty of a red light – although combining the stop sign with 15-mph speed bumps might be even better.

Bike Box Location –A bike box allows cyclists get in front of stopped cars and have a head start when the light turns green so car drivers are more likely to see them before turning or accelerating.  So why not maximize the safety lead – put the box in front of the pedestrian crosswalk instead of behind it, especially when there is a (good) reason for the crosswalk to be some distance from the corner.  This may not be appropriate for intersections with constant and high numbers of pedestrians, but in other cases “bikes yield to pedestrians” signs should handle the potential cyclist-pedestrian contention.

     <– why not put a one-lane bike box here?  With this –>   

Green Paint – Green markings are a very rapidly evolving practice.  We can only hope that the standard becomes a solid green lane rather than the harder-to-see green outline on either side of the lane.


Sharing the Road – Contrary to many car driver’s beliefs, a “share the road” sign does not mean “bikes should stay out of my way on the far edge of the road and pedestrians should wait until I pass.”  So the clearer the message the better.

 “Look Left For Bikes” – Bikes are the newest addition to our limited road space, their presence (at least at first) a repeated surprise (and annoyance) to previous users.  So the more reminders we have of each others presence the better.  Signs are good, on-pavement markings can be better.

Two-Way For Bikes – Low traffic streets should be legally assumed to be two-way for bicycles, even when cars are only allowed in one direction – creating better bike routes and forcing drivers to slow down on these “neighborways.”  (When traffic is heavy an explicit “contra lane” will serve the same purposes. )

A better sign–>   On-road reminder –>   Two-way allowed –>


Speed Bumps & Raised Crossings – We need lots more of these, big ones, at least on residential streets – where the speed limit should be 20 mph, or even 15 mph, and is more likely to be obeyed if the road surface requires it.  And better than the quick-to-wear-off triangles typically used are Brookline’s expand strips.

More visible, on-road speed bump warning –> 

Chicanes –  Zig-zag roads slow cars, unless they’re so far apart that they’re simply slow curves.  And those that push bikes from the curb into moving traffic are always a problem.

“Your Speed Is…” – Letting cars know how fast they are going at least eliminates the ability to pretend you’re not away that you’re going too fast, and sometimes even slows people down.


Separate Off-Road Lanes – Off-road paths are good, and separating bikes and walkers is good.   But kids are slow cyclists while rnners are fast pedestrians.  Its the speed, not the mode that should be the criteria for separation.   So separate paths for “slow” and “fast” travel (rather than “walkers” and “bikes”)would be better.

Dotted line On Off-Road Paths – People tend to walk, bike, or drive in the middle of whatever lane we’re in.  If you put a dotted line down the center of a path, people tend to stay in the middle of “their side.”  Otherwise, they drift into the middle of the path, in everyone’s way.

Reverse Angle Parking –  Easier than parallel parking, backing into an angled parking spot leaves the driver (and car) facing outward –able to see on-coming cars and bicyclists for an easier and safer departure.  It sure beats trying to safely exit a “normal” angle parking spot.


Bike Mini-Ramp on Stairways – A three-inch wide, right-angle strip of metal welded to one of  the railings would make stairways, such as the pedestrian bridge connecting the Esplanade to BU, much easier for cyclists to use, and reduce the chance that a struggling cyclist will accidently hit a pedestrian while trying to carry her bike up the stairs.

Brick Sidewalks – Bricks are beautiful, but try rolling down a brick sidewalk in a wheelchair, or listen to the racket as you push a carriage trying to get your baby to sleep.  Why not use bricks as decorative trimming?

Bike Racks – There are never enough, so any is better than none.  But why use thick bars that don’t work with U-locks, or wavy ones that don’t provide a two-point contact to keep your bike from falling?

Wayfinding & Informative Signs – Knowing where you are, how to get to where you are going, and how long it will take is the first step towards trying to go – by bike or any other way.   And understanding what we are passing makes the trip even better.

Wayfinding –>                       Informational –>       


Thanks to Charlie Denison and Nina Garfinkle for suggestions….


Related Previous Postings:

>QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

>CONTRA-FLOW LANES: Fear and Comfort on Your Own Block

MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

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