Back-of-the-envelope navigation.

As I try to increase my volume of monthly blog posts, I owe it to both my readers and myself to bring back something I used to do regularly: a mini-post, which for me amounts to something less than 1,000 words. The fact of the matter is that I often try to write less, but the topic becomes too absorbing, and my essay balloons. Blaise Pascal would scold me, though he’d still empathize; so would Twain, Goethe, Voltaire, and all the other people to whom we attribute that bon mot, “I would have written less, if only…”  You know how it goes.

But here’s a topic I cannot for the life of me stretch into a Tolstoy short story. Peppered lightly in the downtown Hartford photo below is something most cities have in abundance.IMG_3280Did my choice of the descriptive “peppered” offer enough of a hint?IMG_3280 editsI’m talking about the standard pedestrian crossing signal, circled in yellow in the photo above. While most large cities have them, sometimes budgetl imitations impel municipalities to install them only in the most pedestrian-rich districts, which usually are downtowns. (New Orleans and Philadelphia are two cities that come to mind where they’re often hard to find even in the heart of the city; all pedestrians generally get are stop lights positioned at the corner near a crosswalk, so the brief yellow-light duration indicates that they must scurry across.) Throughout most of the country, transportation authorities and public works departments have switched out the traditional word-based pedestrian signals, which looked a bit like this rarity:IMG_1393

Jersey City seems to have swapped 99% of its signals for the symbolized ones; it’s almost like this textual one got overlooked. So why don’t we see these anymore? I’m loathe to presume it’s due to rising illiteracy, but the fact remains that if someone cannot read or translate “WALK” and “DON’T WALK”, the pictorial representations circled in the photo above should pass muster. Additionally, in the areas with high concentrations of walkers, more cities have installed audible pedestrian signals, which indicate it’s safe to cross through a series of chirps and cuckoos, to aid the visually impaired. (Incidentally, these chirps are already outmoded and fail to satisfy Americans with Disabilities Act requirements; the more advanced Accessible Pedestrian Signals provide information through both vibrotacticle buttons and spoken directions.)

But Connecticut’s capital city has taken it upon itself to adorn these little boxes further. Look what it’s got on the backside—the side without illumination.IMG_3292Virtually all of the signals downtown have directional signage for visitors, individualized depending on both the intersection and the street corner. While other cities may have done this before as well, I’ve never seen it, and it’s a brilliant tactic—subtly animating what otherwise is a blank vertical surface by lacquering it with simple guidance for the out-of-towners. It probably took a heck of a lot of time to calibrate each signal with the correct information (and appropriate arrows and time taken to walk), so I’m not sure the verdict is out yet on whether it has paid off.

Regardless of whether it yields the city a touristic return on its investment, it’s a wonderful idea on so many other levels. First, it reinforces the notion that our downtowns host a piece of electronic infrastructure exclusively devoted to the safety and comfort of pedestrians. Secondly, it assumes people will arc their heads enough to notice the backsides of these devises, which I think is a safe assumption. Unconventional head-tilts occur more readily (and more justifiably) in vertically-oriented downtown environments—and particularly among tourists, as they familiarize themselves with their surroundings. Finally, these navigation tools should optimally represent a cost saving gesture: good for any city, but particularly one with such a depleted tax base as Hartford. Wayfinding signage became ubiquitous in the 1990s—part of yet another effort to stimulate economic activity in downtowns—but all that extra durable, weather-resistant, mounted material costs money and can easily contribute to visual clutter. Hartford opted for adhesive signs instead, when it probably could have turned the  these squares into advertising space. Any city trying to make its downtown accessible and accommodating to visitors (which more or less is every city) should strive to ensure that its navigational tools consistent, simple and distinctive. Hartford does all three. And, out of reach, they’re less susceptible to vandalism too. Alas, the City didn’t quite think it all the way through, because if you arc your head downward a bit, you get a much more conflicting message:


Signs everywhere, including a tiny map.  So much for reducing the budget.  Oh well—it’s still better-conceived than most cities are offering. At least until something even smarter comes along: like purely pictorial directions. Imagine that. Someday words may be passé. Bring on the urban hieroglyphs.

4 thoughts on “Back-of-the-envelope navigation.

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I like it. The back side of infrastructure (signs, traffic signals, parking meters) and even the front or all sides (controller cabinets, posts, fire hydrants) are so often forgotten or ignored, but they’re ripe opportunities for creative uses and beautification. I’m sure you can get a lot of bang for the buck with stickers compared to printed signs on aluminum plate plus all the attendant mounting hardware, assuming poles with free space are even available.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Agreed, Jeffrey, as long as the powers that be can impel people to look at them. In this case, I think people will notice. And I suppose I wasn’t quite accurate in saying they’re merely stickers. Looking at them more closely, the signs seem to be on some mounting material, then adhesive helps keep them fixed to the back. But it’s still less bulky (and probably less costly) than a separate metal sign with its own pole, and it should be out of reach from most vandals.


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