1920’s – a Turning Point in Traffic Sign Design and Sign Shapes

There is evidence that road signs were used as early as the Roman Empire (milestones were placed along major roads to indicate the distance and direction to a destination). The standardized road sign system that we are familiar with today is, by comparison, a relatively modern invention. This article from the first half of the 20th century marks a major turning point in the development of that standardized system. The article reports on a proposal by the Deputy Chief Inspector of Police in New York to adopt universal road signs and traffic symbols across the country. The 1925 article reports on a proposal by the Deputy Chief Inspector of Police in New York to adopt universal road signs and traffic symbols across the country. For an additional article on Interstate Traffic Signs, click here.
Standardizing America’s Road Sign System
Recommended by the International Police Conference
The photographs here reproduced are from a set of models of traffic regulation and direction signs prepared by the Police Department of the city of New York and displayed at the International Police Conference, May 12-16. The adoption of arrow-shaped signs as a uniform method of road marking was recommended by the Traffic Committee of the Conference; the lettering to be black on a white background, and no more words to be used than absolutely necessary.

In an address which preceded the presentation of the report, the committee's chairman, William A. Coleman, Deputy Chief Inspector of Police of New York City, stated that at the 1923 session of the International Police Conference recommendations had been adopted permitting the use of an arrow on a rectangular or other shaped board, but that in his opinion the best results would be obtained by the use of signs cut to the arrow shape; and he added:.

"I have found from personal observation that disc or other shaped signs with an arrow painted thereon, or on which instructions are printed, are practically useless ; they cannot be read at a distance and are absolutely useless at night, whereas the outline of the arrow stands out, is quickly recognized and there is no mistaking its meaning.

"Within the next few weeks all disc signs will be removed from the streets of New York City and replaced with the arrow-shaped sign, which is best adapted for directional purposes. For instance, placed on electric light poles in one-way streets, it cannot have any other meaning than that traffic should move in the direction of the arrow, and no further instructions are necessary.

"At detours, pointed right or left, it plainly indicates which way to turn.

"An arrow with a diamond-shaped plate means two things—that commercial traffic and heavy trucks are prohibited from using that thoroughfare.

"An arrow pointed downward means "Stop."

"An arrow with a circular disc, pointed upward, placed in the vicinity of schools, churches, courts, hospitals, and in congested streets, means "Caution; drive slowly."

"Then we have the danger signs for railroad crossings, dangerous crossing, dangerous hills, sharp curve to right or left.

"At present we are continuing to print brief instructions on the arrows, but it is believed that after a short time even this will be unnecessary.

"The type of sign used should be reduced to the smallest possible number, so that their meaning may be more easily understood and remembered. While there were twelve different types of arrow signs adopted at the Conference, there are really only two or three of the number of arrows mentioned that will be in daily use in this city with which it will be necessary for the public to familiarize themselves. The one-way street sign is so well known that there is no need of explanation, and so with the "Keep left" and "right" sign. The other signs may he unfamiliar for a while, but they will be quickly understood.

"The use of the arrow sign should become universal, so that no matter in what part of the world a motorist may travel, the directional sign will have the same meaning to him. This would eliminate a lot of unnecessary confusion now encountered when traveling from one state to another, or from one country to another. It will be a great factor in reducing accidents and insuring safety for pedestrians.

Colors for Traffic Light Control Systems

"This also applies to the use of lights in the control of traffic. Since the traffic light control system was adopted in New York City we have used the following lights in the control of traffic:

  • Yellow light — north- and south-bound traffic moves.
  • Red light     — moving traffic stops.
  • Green light  — east and west bound traffic moves.

"The use of these lights caused some confusion and was the subject of much criticism. This matter was the subject of much study on the part of those concerned, and it was finally decided to adopt a new system of light control, that is, red for "Stop," and green for "Go." This system was put into effect on April 27, I925, and has met with universal approval. I recommend that this system be adopted as the standard traffic light control system throughout the United States and other countries where a traffic light control system is now in operation or about to be installed,"

There is nothing to be accomplished by such lines. At present such places are rare because of the absurdly high limits we have set to the height of buildings.

One point should be kept in mind-the difference between building lines established in a business district, for widening now or at some future time, and lines established in residence districts for health, safety and general welfare. The former
Parking Sign OldSchool Parking Old
Caution Sign Stop OldCar Stop Old
Keep Right Sign OldDetour Left Sign Old
Detour Right Sign OldBi Directional Detour Sign Old
One Way Sign from 1920Traffic Warning Sign from 1920
Curve SignCrossing Sign
must be done under eminent domain with at least theoretical damages; the latter may be established under the police power, with no compensation involved, because the whole basis is different. But the attitude of the people and the courts is changing, for reasons some of which have been mentioned, and it is not at all unreasonable to expect that some time the whole may come under the general welfare clause and become a matter of public regulation, just as it is expected that the city plan may be laid down according to the needs and conditions and enforced in the interests of the community, under the police power with no question of damages involved.

Here enters the question of ‘public use,” as applied to matters relating to eminent domain. Property may not be taken for public use without compensation, and no one desires that it should be so taken. But the establishment of building lines in residence districts is not a taking of the land between the street and the line as established. It leaves the land in the hands of the owner and for his use and enjoyment, providing only that he may not build upon it. This restriction placed by the public is not a taking for a public use, and the parties substantially benefiting are the owner and the neighboring owners, in varying degrees as the distance increases. The owner enjoys the same advantage from the lines set on the two lots which adjoin him, and in decreasing degree from the lines on other lots in the block and on the street.

The same idea may be applied in business districts. The developer in the first instance dedicated the streets, as he should. When the time comes that the owner needs a wider street so that the people may in increased number come to do business with him, he should probably be likewise held as in duty bound to provide such access. The argument that all the traffic does not use his place of business does not hold, since the man involved himself has the use of the streets and highways throughout the entire country, and not all of his travels are for the purpose of purchasing goods.

Building lines should be established before there is any building, and they should be of uniform depth for every block for considerable distances. This should include corner lots, in order to avoid Bottle - necking every street at every street intersection. It doesn’t follow that all building lines should have the same depth, nor does it follow that no one would set back beyond the minimum established. Variety will be secured according to the various tastes of the people going into the region, just as it has been secured in the past, but if there should be no variety for a considerable distance, it would not be as bad as a variety so great that it means chaos in appearance and renders any widening of the street forever impossible.

Corner Clearance

Another feature to be considered in this connection is corner clearance. This involves both traffic clearance and vision clearance. Generally fatal to both of these is the device too often used of requiring less of a setback on one side of a corner lot. It works all right for the main street, so far as general setback purposes are concerned, but, as we have seen, it does not work on cross-streets. And when we come to consider corner clearance, for either of the purposes mentioned, the scheme fails. Most problems of corner clearance involve a main way and a minor cross - street; at any rate they involve enough of such conditions to make it very unsafe to ignore the side street when establishing building lines. The building line is one of the best methods of providing for corner clearance needs. Here again, the way to provide corner clearance is to provide it, If you do not provide it, you do not have it. Its necessity since the coming of the automobile is obvious. The argument that it penalizes the man with a corner lot does not hold in fact, and it does not need to occur at all if the simple device is used of giving him the usual advantage of a more shallow rear yard. This has been done in many laws having to do with housing, and may continue to be done with no disadvantage; in fact, with decided advantage, when we consider the rear yard reduction as a compensation for the proper openings at the intersection of streets.
From The American City Magazine, July 1925.

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