Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Signs


With the streetcar, H Street will need clear signs

For streetcars to move through traffic, rail tracks have to be free of parked cars. To keep them that way, the rules of the road must be crystal clear for drivers.

Streetcar parking zone sign, Seattle. Photo by BeyondDC.

Last week DDOT used a truck for a test-run of the H Street streetcar route, and because of illegally parked cars, the going was slow. But other cities with similar streetcar layouts, like Seattle and Portland, have had a lot of success keeping their lanes clear. How do they do it?

With constant and clear communication to drivers, like the sign pictured here, and with strong enforcement.

Any time you take pavement away from cars, there's a learning curve. Drivers accustomed to doing as they please have to change behavior. That's to be expected, and it doesn't happen on the first day you run your first test truck. But most drivers do fall in line, once they understand what's changed. That's how streetcars have worked in other cities.

And if all else fails, ticketing cameras mounted on streetcars, like in San Francisco, would solve any remaining problem in a hurry.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Metro fare signs confuse the riders who need help most

Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.

Photo by Tim Krepp.

Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.

It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.

The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.

An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.

All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.

WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.


WMATA upgrades bus stop signs

Metrobus riders are seeing a new kind of schedule and route map at many stops. A multi-year effort to upgrade the information posted at bus stops has been underway since last year.

The new schedules tell you when the bus comes to the stop you're at, and just that. Formerly, a timetable was posted for the entire route, and the same signs were used all along the line. There was only room to list arrival times for a few places, and the stop where you stood might not be included. Unless you were already familiar with the bus route, the old timetables could be nearly impossible to decipher.

The route maps are also simpler, and new flat display panels are starting to replace the four-sided boxes long in use. Where WMATA and local bus services (Ride-On, Fairfax Connector, etc.) share stops, each will use one side of the board.

New flat panel information displays for bus stops. Left: typical schedule and map. Center: new schedule format. Right: special design used at the Mark Center. Photos from WMATA.

The new signage is now up at 3,500 of the 12,000 Metrobus stops, including all Metrorail stations and stops on priority corridors. The old schedules are gradually being replaced, but 4,500 stops still have them. It will take several more years to finish the makeoverhow long depends on how many of the routes where the new signs are already up change their schedules. Each change ties up WMATA staff and contractors, who have to swap out timetables at each stop along the line.

Metro's long-range goal is to post a schedule and map at all 12,000 bus stops. This, however, will require time and additional funding.

Posting a customized schedule at each bus stopat considerable expensereverses a cost-saving measure of a decade ago. In the intervening years, WMATA and other bus services have focused on giving riders real-time bus arrival information over the Internet.

But a focus group two years ago urged WMATA to renew the investment in hard-copy timetables at bus stops. For a system trying hard to attract new riders, it makes sense. The bus and the bus stop, in plain sight of everyone on the street, are its best advertisements. The easier it is for someone walking by to figure out when the bus comes and where it goes, the more likely they are to give it a try.


Drivers find out too late about road closures downtown

Here's a simple way to make drivers' lives easier that doesn't hurt any cyclists, pedestrians, transit, or anyone else: Put signs on the approaches to DC about major road closures.

Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

Especially on weekends, special events often close large swaths of streets downtown, in part because it's necessary, and in part because the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), unlike its counterparts in other cities, won't let cross traffic pass through a special event, even at traffic lights.

I've had many experiences driving home from Alexandria or National Airport, getting off at 12th Street, and encountering crippling backups in the 12th Street tunnel as every car has to turn right or left on Constitution.

It then takes a long time to crawl on Constitution past the Ellipse, because lots of other people are coming off the 14th Street bridge on 14th Street and also turning. White House-related security closures can extend westward to 18th or even beyond.

In most of these cases, there's plenty of capacity downtown. It's just that drivers don't know to take the routes that are clear. Often there are notices from DDOT and in the press about closures, but clearly many people don't know or remember to check. I often don't look through neighborhood listservs before driving to Virginia.

When 12th Street is closed at Constitution, it would help enormously if DC could just put a sign on the 14th Street bridge saying this. Drivers could know to take 14th or use the I-395 tunnel instead, depending on their destination. Or, better yet, put signs on 395 and the GW Parkway so drivers can route around to the Memorial, TR, and Key Bridges if they're going somewhere north or west of downtown.

This isn't a brand-new idea. A suggestion for real-time signs is part of the 14th Street Bridge corridor EIS, which has been in the works since 2006. There's no need to wait years to make this happen, though.

An open data feed of closures, frequently updated with closures for the day, might also be useful. People could build apps that help drivers know what roads to avoid.

Some traffic is inevitablewe're not realistically going to make downtown DC a speedy place to zip around by car at rush hour. But there's no good reason for people to spend 10 minutes in traffic at one intersection when the roads all around are empty, simply because people don't know ahead of time to take a different route.

And rather than arguing about a "war on cars," let's prioritize in opportunities to help drivers that don't involve pushing other road users aside. There are plenty that we just aren't tackling yet.


Ask GGW: Do you have to pay to park here?

If signs say that you can park but must pay on one section of a street, while parking is illegal until 6:30 pm on another section, do you have to pay on that second section after 6:30?

The 800 block of 17th Street, NW has these parking signs along its length, in this order (plus another one farther to the left, at the corner, which isn't relevant here).

It's clear you can't ever park to the right of the rightmost sign (that's at the corner). It's also clear that between the left and middle signs (and to the left of the left sign), you can park from 9:30-4 on weekdays, but have to pay the meter.

You can also park after 6:30 pm in that zone, but have to pay. The 2-hour time limit doesn't apply, so you can park for 3½ hours, but have to pay $7 to do it.

But what about between the middle and right signs? You can't park from 7 am to 6:30 pm, and can stand only outside rush hours. Both restrictions expire at 6:30, but the "pay to park" rule seem to only apply left of the middle sign, since the middle sign has a leftward-pointing green arrow.

Drivers probably should have to pay in both zones after 6:30, since it would be a little silly to have half the block be free in the evenings while the other half is not, but at the moment, the signs don't seem to require that.

On a recent evening, a few drivers tried parking in the apparently-free zone, and an enforcement officer ticketed the 2 cars closest to the middle sign, but not the others, which is particularly odd.


ANC gets illegal Uline Arena signs removed

The illegal signs on the west side of the Uline Arena are finally down. Dogged determination from the local ANC, rather than any city agency, managed to get a powerful owner to comply with the law.

Two of the large signs have been removed from the west wall of Uline Arena. Photos by the author.

The arena is at 3rd and M Streets NE in NoMA, just east of the railroad tracks. We first discussed the illegal signs in June 2011. A little over a month later, DCRA fined Douglas Development, the owner of the building, for illegal billboards. More than a year has passed, during which time Douglas appealed the ruling and fines.

While Douglas appeared to be successfully running out the clock by keeping the appeal active, another deadline became more pressing. The company needed an extension from the Board of Zoning Adjustment (case number 17809B) that required ANC 6C's approval. The ANC presented Douglas with a list of items the commission wanted completed before giving its consent.

The items on the list included:

  1. Painting/removing graffiti on the roof
  2. Fixing any openings providing access to the roof
  3. Fixing the leak in the side of the wall along the west side of the building
  4. Rebuilding the sidewalk at the corner of 3rd and M Streets (at the 3rd Street side)
  5. Getting Clear Channel to paint the billboard post (in the plaza area)
  6. Complying with any DCRA orders concerning the (potentially) illegal billboards at the west wall
  7. Installing additional fencing (approximately 4 feet high) to prevent cars from parking in public space at the M Street side of the "ice house" property, along with associated gates, benches and other site furnishings.
Number 6, you'll note, addresses the signs on the side of the building. Douglas Development could have responded that they believed the signs were legal and that their appeal would bear this out. Apparently, this wasn't an action they wished to pursue. Instead, the signs have come down, and other improvements for the historic, yet vacant, shell are underway.

Vines covering the south side of the building have also been cut and are beginning to wither away.

Kudos to the ANC for holding the developer's feet to the fire and getting a substantial set of actions in exchange for support. There's no reason a building can't be minimally (and legally) maintained while it's being warehoused for development, and ANC 6C has proven that's the case.


Better signs could speed trains through Fort Totten

Fort Totten is a convenient transfer point between Metro lines outside the core, but the station layout results in unnecessary crowding. Better signage could improve passenger flow and speed up trains, by helping users know where to stand on the platform.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Though crowding at Fort Totten is not as severe as at Gallery Place, the crowding at Fort Totten does cause delays to southbound Green and Yellow trains, and can also cause passengers to miss the train.

The basic problem is that the only access to the Green/Yellow platform is at the extreme northern end. Since Metro trains now pull all the way to the front of stations, there is a gap at the end of the platform for 6-car trains.

At most stations this isn't a problem, because escalators drop passengers closer to the middle of the platform. But at Fort Totten, riders on the Green/Yellow platform arrive well behind the end point of southbound 6-car trains. When a southbound train arrives, there is often a mad rush to get to the last door.

The result is that dozens of people try to push through a single door, which forces trains to stay on the platform longer, delaying the trip and gumming up the schedule. Even then, a clump of passengers is sometimes left on the platform to wait for the next train.

Metro could help alleviate this problem with clever signs. One potential solution is already in place elsewhere in the system. National Airport and Union Station both have entrances that are at extreme ends of the platform, similar to Fort Totten. They are also stations that have a lot of non-regular riders.

Because the escalators at these stations eject riders onto the platform well behind where 6-car trains stop, WMATA placed signs encouraging riders to walk further down the platform.

National Airport. Photo by the author.

Signage like that could help at Fort Totten. However, simple overhead signs often blend into the background and are overlooked. A more visible and therefore more useful solution might be floor signage:

Floor sign in the Montreal Metro. Photo by the author.

Montreal makes good use of signs like the one pictured above in its Metro. At Fort Totten, a large, colorful floor sign could clearly indicate to riders that they should move down the platform. Such a floor sign might look something like this:

Another option is to put signs on the wall across the tracks from the southbound platform, more precisely indicating where the sixth car stops.

To make boarding even easier, WMATA might consider encouraging riders to walk at least down to where the fifth car stops, rather than merely to the end of the sixth.

This is because with southbound trains, the sixth car is often the most crowded before it even gets to Fort Totten. Savvy Green Line riders intending to transfer to the Red Line cluster in the sixth car, to put themselves as close as possible to the escalators leading up to the Red platform, and thus reduce the likelihood that they will miss a Red Line train that's about to leave. Also, the escalators and stairs at Prince George's Plaza and West Hyattsville deposit riders at the sixth car's position, so a lot of people just end up in that car anyway.

During rush hour, as many as half the riders in the sixth car can be trying to get out at Fort Totten. In many instances, it takes the entire time the train has its doors open for all the exiting passengers in the sixth car to alight. There is frequently no time for people waiting outside the sixth car to start boarding. On the other hand, those who've walked further down the platform are already on board.

When 6-car southbound trains arrive at Fort Totten, the cluster of patrons who've been standing at the position of (non-existent) cars 7 and 8 dash up and cluster around the last door of the train, making it harder for the stream of riders leaving the train to reach the escalators to the mezzanine and the Red Line.

A touch under half of southbound rush hour trains at Fort Totten's lower level are 8-cars long. This signage would discourage riders at Fort Totten from boarding those cars, but that's not a problem. Riders from other stations would still use those cars, and people just arriving from the Red Line would still be able to board from the end of the platform.

At any rate, the advantage of moving passengers further down the platform outweighs any possible disadvantage of having fewer Fort Totten riders board the last 2 or 3 cars.


Arlington trail signs improve wayfinding, mostly

Arlington has started installing the first of the 250 "wayfinding" signs it has planned along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. They are part of a comprehensive plan that will include hundreds of signs across the county.

All images by the author.

The first signs are a big improvement over the non-existent or outdated signs currently along the trails. They can still be better, and hopefully the county will learn from the first ones and from comments regular trail users.

My past reviews of trail signs have mostly been negative because they either did not exist or did not function well. The new signs are better, but they still have a few issues.

This map shows the locations of the 3 signs reviewed here.

The sign at the top right is mounted on the sound wall at the entrance of the trail. The signs now list the name of the trail, a vast improvement over ones in the past which pointed towards destinations but failed to tell you which trail you were on.

Now someone who gets directions online or from a friend that say to "turn right on the Custis Trail" will have confidence they are at the right place when they reach the trail entrance.

This spot has always been confusing because both directions look like the trail. This sign helps, but it should also indicate that the Custis Trail continues to the left.

The East Falls Church distance indicator in the sign at the top was accidentally swapped with the one on this sign. The soundwall sign is actually closer to East Falls Church than this sign, but says it is 0.1 miles farther away.

This sign presents two specific problems but also offers an example of how future signs can improve further.

First, the word "THRU" is unclear. Is there a difference between the word "THRU" and a straight arrow? If so, it's difficult to tell what that is.

If not, a straight arrow would be clearer, and it would be more consistent with the directional arrows used elsewhere. The County may have already recognized the possible confusion since, as of yesterday morning, the word "THRU" had been blacked over on at this particular sign.

Second, Washington-Lee High School is not a useful destination to a vast majority of trail users. I would guess that only a small portion of cyclists and pedestrians passing this point are going to Washington-Lee High School.

Maybe it was necessary to have a directional sign for Washington-Lee High School to meet Safe Routes to School objectives. But if that's the case, then it should be at the connector to 15th St North near North Taylor and at the Quincy St connector, the exit points from the trail to the school.

At this location, the sign should have a more general location like "Clarendon" or, better yet, Washington, DC. Probably more than a quarter of trail users at this point are headed to the District. Yet, Arlington staff have told me that Washington, DC will appear on very few of the signs even though it is one of the most common destinations, especially for weekday commuters.

Finally, these problems raise a larger question: why weren't any of these issues resolved prior to posting the signs? Arlington hired a supposedly top notch contractor to do this. They spent a lot of time and money developing a comprehensive plan. I'm very active in the cycling community, yet I never heard anything about them soliciting user input on this sign system.

Before the next signs are finalized, Arlington and their contractor should make better effort to gather input and feedback from the trail users and the general public. In the future they should:

  • Get on the DC online bike forums to ask the community about challenging intersections and common destinations
  • Present at the Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings to seeking local knowledge; and
  • Have a presence out on the trails, to talk with the actual trail users and get their input.
These are simple tactics to gather information. It's hard to say definitively, but I'm not aware that they engaged local users other than the Arlington County staff. Aren't these the kinds of things for which a Bicycle Advisory Committee exists?

To be sure, the new signs is are a fantastic improvement over the previous state. But hopefully Arlington can learn from first ones and apply those lessons as the program expands.

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