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The New York look

Like most things around here, the signs of New York City are not uniform. They are brown, blue, and green. There are signs with address numbers, while some depict the Statue of Liberty. Some are traditionally rectangle, some have a retro shape. Some are named after social movements that define their generations. Some are named for important people who influenced this city – either for love or money. While being utilitarian, they are also historical and political. One thing's for sure: you look up to every one of them for guidance.

For the past 40 years, the street signs of New York City have remained largely New Yorker in flair – get the job done, make no mistake and SAY IT LOUD IN ALL CAPS. But it's all slowly changing. The Feds have made a case for lowercase, and New York City has until 2018 to replace all 250,000 uppercase street signs. So here's to lowering the noise pollution – even if it is textual.

The Federal Highway Administration, in its updated Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, contends that increased readability is mandatory. While there's been some contention at a local level over the viability of such a mandate, new signage is popping up all over the city. Originating as a safety issue on America's nighttime highways, the edict was issued by the FHA in 2003, and New York was given 15 years to get it done. Saving the squinted eyes of tourists, transplants and rookie cabbies is no small task, however, with an estimated cost of $27.6 million job at $110 a sign.

The plan was put into action in 2010, when city budgets were already on the chopping block as the recession wreaked havoc on unemployment figures. To date, 11,000 new street signs all over the city have been replaced. While new street signs can be disheartening for the taxpayer, the deadline does come under examination routinely in city proposals.

New Yorkers move fast, so shaving a few extra nanoseconds off of deciphering signs could add up to substantial savings spent on police accident reports, ambulance trips, gas burned idling and tourist/New Yorker collisions a year. Furthermore, fewer collisions can have a third-generation impact on bettering public relations and tourism, in the opposite way that the graffiti-strewn trains of the '70s scared off travelers from stopping in the Big Apple.

NYC Street Parking Signs Mayor Edward I. Koch taking charge of illegal parking at 49th Street and 5th Avenue. June 16, 1983. Via NYC Municipal Archives.

Besides discontinuing capitalized signs, the city is also instituting a new font. Its strengths are evident in its name: Clearview. The Clearview font was created by the designers Donald Meeker and James Montalbano, in conjunction with the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Award-winning illustrator of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System Paul Shaw advocates the transition of the street signs in a WNYC interview: "It's been developed for highway signage … for drivers at a distance. They found that it's more legible; it's more quickly understandable. And while it may seem like a minor thing to the average person until you're driving or walking and you've got to identify something and break in time or turn in time…"

Time will tell if the new lowercase street signs will take a back seat to more demanding municipal needs. But for now, a friendlier font and ‘volume’ will welcome tourists to the city. Since New York City has a reputation for traffic signs with attitude, famous for its haikus for safety and Don't Even Think About Parking Here signs, this could be a good move for the tourist industry.

In this visual world that we now find ourselves, maybe that's a subtle cosmetic change that just feels right for New York.


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