NEW YORK CITY’S STREET NAME SIGNS:

HOW AND WHY THEY VARY IN COLOR, SHAPE, SIZE AND CONTENT

Currently in New York City, there are approximately 250,000 street name signs. Most have white text on green backgrounds and are otherwise uniformly designed (see Photograph A). But, have you noticed that there are numerous variations in NYC’s street name signs? Some signs, for example, have brown backgrounds; others blue; and yet others black. Some signs are illuminated and some contain images. Other variations in signage concern capitalization and font style. If you have noticed these variations, have you also wondered about the meaning behind them?

This piece discusses the regulations behind the design of NYC’s street name signs, and among other things, why many of the street name signs in use today will be replaced over the next several years.

Background

The New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) is the agency responsible for designing, manufacturing and installing NYC’s street name signs; however, in discharging these duties, NYCDOT’s discretion is limited by the Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) – safety standards adopted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), which NYCDOT must meet. The MUTCD includes technical specifications of acceptable design features (color, size, shape, reflectivity, etc.). While comprehensively detailed, the MUTCD affords certain flexibility for local design variation.

Background Color

Under the MUTCD, the general rule is that street name signs must have white text on green backgrounds. This standard has been federally-mandated for nearly 30 years. You may recall that before then, NYC had borough-specific color combinations (blue text on a white background for Queens; white text on a blue background for the Bronx; green text on a yellow background for Staten Island and Manhattan; and white text on a green background for Brooklyn).

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Despite the MUTCD regulations, there are exceptions permitting alternate background colors (namely – brown, blue, black or white), including, for instance, in areas that meet certain federal criteria for the designation of a historic district. NYC has several examples of these variations:

  • Brown (Landmarks): To raise historical awareness, NYC allows street name signs with brown backgrounds in areas that are officially designated as historic districts by NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (see Photograph B). The brown (or terra cotta) hue was designed to complement the limestone and brownstone facades prevalent in many of these designated districts. These signs also have a special black border identifying the name of the applicable historic district. Because this initiative is privately-funded, not all eligible streets have this special brown signage.

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  • Blue (34th Street Business Improvement District): 31 contiguous blocks in Midtown Manhattan (from 31st to 36th Streets; and Park to Tenth Avenues) have street name signs with blue backgrounds (see Photograph C). Certain of these signs have other distinguishing features, including an oversized “humpback” shape, illumination, and the range of addresses on the applicable block. Intended to promote the image and business potential of this district, these signs are sponsored by the 34th Street Partnership, a private, non-profit entity.

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  • Black (Lower Manhattan): Another private, non-profit entity, the Alliance for Downtown New York, sponsors special street name signage in Lower Manhattan with black backgrounds, and other distinguishing features including the range of addresses on the applicable block, and “pictographs” (images) of certain Lower Manhattan landmarks, including the New York Stock Exchange (pictographs are discussed in more detail below) (see Photograph D).

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  • Black (Chelsea): The Chelsea Improvement Company, yet another private, non-profit entity, sponsors special street name signs in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Implemented to improve readability (particularly at night), these signs have black backgrounds, an oversized “humpback” shape, illumination, and include the range of addresses on the applicable block (see Photograph E).

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Pictographs

Pictographs are specifically permitted in the MUTCD, subject to certain limitations, including positioning and content. For example, the pictograph must be positioned to the left of the street name and may only depict: a governmental jurisdiction; an area of jurisdiction; a governmental agency; a military base or branch of service; a governmental-approved university or college; a toll payment system; or a government-approved institution. The pictograph’s height and width cannot exceed the height of the upper-case letter(s) printed on the sign for the street name. A familiar pictograph is the image of Miss Liberty, which was installed on street name signs between 34th and 59th Streets in Manhattan, for the 1986 commemoration of the Statue of Liberty’s 100-year anniversary. Although some of these signs have since been replaced, many remain today (see Photograph F).

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Lettering

You may also notice variations in the lettering on street name signs. NYC is phasing out signs with the street name in all capital letters. This, in contrast to the community-driven examples above, is a federally-mandated process (although there is no set deadline for implementation). Specifically, in compliance with changes that became effective on January 15, 2010, the MUTCD now requires mixed-case lettering (the first letter capitalized; the rest lower-case). These new signs are intended to enhance motorist safety, following research findings that mixed-case lettering is easier to read. The new signs also reflect a font style change from “Highway Gothic”, to “Clearview” (an alternative style that is permitted, but not required under the MUTCD).

Alternate Street Names

Certain streets have been officially renamed by NYC, through a procedure requiring City Council approval. Prominent examples include “Fashion Avenue” – the portion of Seventh Avenue traversing Manhattan’s Garment District (from 34th to 39th Streets). Where applicable, there are multiple street name signs: one sign bearing the original name and the other sign bearing the alternate name.

Final Thoughts

So the next time you travel though NYC, take notice of the street name signs; perhaps you will now better appreciate the variations and meanings behind them.