5 responses to “BIKEZ MY RIDIN / TRAIL RAIL UR ON I’M”

  1. Quick, what does this sign on the bike trail say?

    If you’re like me, you will probably initially read it as saying “XING ROAD”. Then, maybe after a fraction of a second, your brain kicked in and told you that maybe you should reverse the order. You do this mental correction because you’ve probably grown accustomed to reading on-the-street signs in this way. You’ve seen “AHEAD STOP” before and (unless talk like Yoda you prefer to) you probably instantly read it as “STOP AHEAD”.

    But why are multiple-word on-the-street signs typically laid out this way, with the words reading from bottom-to-top?

    I can only guess that it’s basically the same concept as the famous old Burma-Shave signs, where drivers would read successive rhyming lines of advertising on roadside signage along country roads:

    The ladies take
    One whiff and purr
    It’s no wonder
    Men prefer

    The Burma-Shave signs were placed hundreds of feet apart — it was impossible to read the second sign before reading the first, so you could not possibly read them in the wrong order.

    But with road signs like the one in the photo, it’s easy to read the whole sign’s two-word message at once, isn’t it? And yet the signage designers seem to think drivers will read the bottom word first, assuming, I can only presume, that drivers are so incredibly short sighted and driving at such immensely slow speeds that they can only read the one word closest to their car at any given time, and that they will not see the second word until they’ve read the first one.

    I remember seeing a sign that said “PEDS TO YIELD”… or was it “YIELD TO PEDS”? I guess someone will find out the hard way some day.

    (The photo is from the lovely Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail, which we biked last week from Washington, DC to Ashburn, VA, a leisurely 35 miles.)

  2. Lauren Steely Avatar
    Lauren Steely

    Ogden Nash wrote a poem about this problem fifty years ago:

    In between the route marks
    And the shaving rhymes,
    Black and yellow markers
    Comment on the times.
    All along the highway
    Hear the signs discourse:

    S L O W
    C R O S S I N G

    Cryptic crossroad preachers
    Proffer good advice,

    Helping wary drivers
    Keep out of Paradise.

    Transcontinental sermons,
    Transcendental talk:

    C A U T I O N
    C H I L D R E N

    Wisest of their proverbs,
    Truest of their talk,
    Have I found that dictum:

    C H I L D R E N

    When Adam took the highway,
    He left his sons a guide:

    C H I L D R E N
    C H I L D R E N

  3. @Lauren: Thanks so much for showing this poem to me, it’s wonderful! I particularly like the double meaning of “cross”.

    I’m picturing Nash’s signage as the kind where the word in the middle is the BIG word in the center of a sign, and the other two words are above and below the big word but are to be read as a subtitle: SLOW: MEN WORKING or CAUTION: SOFT SHOULDERS. Those, too, are pretty questionable acts of graphic design, I think, even if they create pretty interesting poetry.

  4. Lauren Steely Avatar
    Lauren Steely

    Exactly. I think those signs were more common in his time than they are now, but we’ve all seen enough of them to picture what he’s talking about. I guess the designers were more concerned with aesthetic symmetry than clarity.

  5. The Lincoln Tunnel has an example of this (STAY IN LANE) and I’ve always presumed the issue was that drivers MIGHT NOT be able to read the entire phrase if traffic and cars in front of them obscured the words. Soooo, they would need to read it piecemeal, in order…and react accordingly. At least that’s what I pretend to think, so as to give SOMEONE out there the benefit of the doubt.

    I wonder who holds positions in life such as these, sign-strategists…are they civil engineers? My biggest gripe for years was how silly America is for making multiple versions of independent arrow signs (left, right, up, down, diagonally up and left, etc) when in Europe they make ONE on a circle and rotate it accordingly!!

    But then again, we mock the metric system. Sigh.