Fall is in the air, and on Seattle's street signs

As part of a 10-year project, the city is gradually changing its street signs from green to brown. Our resident "address nerd" surveys the damage.
Like the leaves, Seattle's street signs are turning brown.

Like the leaves, Seattle's street signs are turning brown. Benjamin Lukoff

Leaves aren't the only thing that have recently been changing color in Seattle. Some of our street name signs — all but one of which have, for more than 40 years, featured white lettering on a green background — are turning a distinct shade of brown.

When I first noticed these going up near my Roosevelt apartment, my immediate thought — brown being the standard color for signs indicating areas of "recreational and cultural interest" — was of Seattle's network of park-like streets, particularly our Olmsted boulevards. My email inquiry to SDOT went unanswered, however, which led me to ponder the matter as they began to spring up elsewhere. I eventually did find confirmation, buried in Appendix G (PDF) of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan: "The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation is working with SDOT to develop brown signs for routes on Olmsted boulevards." (What this has to do with cycling, I'm not sure, though the same document does explain the appearance of full-fledged signs for the Burke-Gilman Trail.)

Now, ordinarily, this amateur of the city would have been thrilled by such a development. I was the kid who used to name his house's hallways and doorways by making his own street signs out of paper and taping them to the walls, and was thrilled to discover recently that I'm not the only one in the Pacific Northwest who has this slightly odd obsession with way-finding aids (apparently they are known as "blades" to the aficionado). But was this really the right thing to be doing in the middle of a budget crisis? I wouldn't say, pace Dori Monson, that I was nauseated, but these blades, and SDOT workers' time, don't come cheap.

Yet it turns out that we approved this project in 2006 as part of the Bridging the Gap levy. Since then we've begun replacing signs at all our nearly 13,000 intersections, as the aluminum ones installed in the 1960s have definitely begun to show their age, and the new fiberglass batch is larger and more reflective. In a sense, we're finally catching up with the rest of the country. Our timing may not have been perfect, but we'd better pray for strong stomachs, because this project is scheduled to go, according to a report in The Seattle Times, until 2016. (On the bright side, that leaves plenty of time for you to pick up your favorite old sign at the city's surplus warehouse.

And not only are our existing signs being replaced, but paths and stairways are now indicated as such with an intuitive pictogram (Sound Transit might want to take note), and many previously unsigned rights-of-way no longer have that distinction — for example, the entrance to the NOAA campus in Sand Point, and parts of the University of Washington system that connect to the city grid. On the whole, this program was probably long overdue.

Monson and his listeners aren't totally off-base as regards waste. Not a few signs have been going up with errors. No misspelled names — so far — but plenty of blades with missing directional designators, and a couple at 24th and Newton that make sense, but only in a convoluted manner. The copyeditor in me likes to think that thousands of dollars could be saved by imposing a simple editorial procedure on sign production. I also wonder if it's necessary to replace the aluminum blades that went up in the 1980s and 1990s — especially the latter, which are the same size as the new model. Lastly, if this Olmsted plan has been in the works for a while, there's no reason there should be any new green signs on Ravenna Boulevard or circling Green Lake, as they'll need to be replaced with brown ones anyway.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 27, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps the Congress has created Seattle National Park and we didn't hear about it because there are no Seattle reporters based in Washington, D.C.

Posted Tue, Oct 27, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

These new street signs are brown to underscore the fact that in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary by local politicians, Seattle is NOT a green city. BTW, SDOT's failure to return the reporter's phone call is emblematic of Seattle government's lack of accountability to its citizens. To them, we are merely their bill-payers. Bad customer service is how they roll.

Mud Baby

Posted Tue, Oct 27, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

I have to say I love the new street signs that are going up. They're much more readable. Thanks for explaining the brown signs. I assumed it was something to suggest "historic." As for the connection with cycling, let's not forget that the main original lobby for paving our roads was the bike lobby, the League of American Wheelmen, back in the 1880s. And they were a major factor in the creation of Lake Washington Blvd. Once upon a time, cyclists and drivers were on the same page in terms of building quality roadways. This project is not a waste; sign improvement and replacement is long over due, the kind of basic infrastructure upgrade we need.

http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file;_id=5218

Posted Tue, Oct 27, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Given the large number of street signs that are old, faded and hard to read, now is exactly the right time to be replacing them. SDOT has already installed new signs at 3,645 intersections since beginning voter-approved Bridging the Gap levy work in 2007.

The brown signs highlight the historic Olmsted boulevards that exist throughout Seattle and cost exactly the same as green ones. The Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, and Seattle Parks and Recreation requested that SDOT use brown signs when old signs are replaced on Olmsted boulevards. The cross street signs are replaced using the standard green style at the same time.

Allie from SDOT

allieger

Posted Tue, Oct 27, 11:09 a.m. Inappropriate

I noticed these signs first on Queen Anne, on the "Crown of Queen Anne"--which is one of the Park Boulevards. While I appreciate the idea of the signs, it seems quite wasteful that many of these were just replaced not even a year or two ago with the new larger (green) signs.

As a bicyclist, I'm also disappointed that while the city continues to add all these fancy new signs, there are still no street signs at many Burke-Gilman Trail crossings (so trail users know what street they have reached). We've complained about this for years, but SDOT doesn't seem to think it's important that bicyclists know where they are once they get onto a trail.

65th and 70th are particularly a mystery (see map and photo: http://www.bicyclewatchdog.org/item.php?id=125), unless you know that's where you are. We'll take the old signs, too, we're not picky!

Another peeve is that the new "blades" show the address numbers next to the street name, instead of in a separate sign above. The new layout implies that the address number applies to that street, when in fact it is to the next block on the crossing street (the street you are on). When there is an arrow on the street sign, it's even more likely to be misunderstood.

Obviously they're trying to save money by having just one "blade", but it's definitely more confusing.

slugbiker

Posted Thu, Oct 29, 12:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I think this is the link Knute was trying to post: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file;_id=5218

Allie — I have seen new-style green signs go up on Olmsted routes, though. Here, for example, as mentioned in the story. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukobe/4030683422/ There is also the issue, as I mentioned, of signs going up with errors. We're then faced with the choice of replacing the signs, which costs as much as putting them up in the first place, or leaving them up with mistakes. I love this program, but I'm worried that issues like this might make it harder for it to be expanded in the future. It's also great fodder for the likes of Dori Monson, also as I mentioned.

Slugbiker — There are a few Burke-Gilman Trail signs up, one of which is at Stone Way N. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukobe/4030686156/ I assume this means the other crossings will be signed eventually. And yes, I was a bit taken aback by the loss of the block-number "hat," too, but I think I've gotten used to it.

Posted Mon, Nov 2, 2:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Slightly related: we were near the Burke-Gilman a while back and saw a Google Street View Trike and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. This article indicates street view for the Burke-Gilman and other bike trails should appear on Google Maps in the next month or two:
http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2009/10/google_maps_trike_team_tell_us.html

Now I hope I'll be able to check "by bike" and get directions!

joshuadf

Posted Thu, Nov 5, 11:13 p.m. Inappropriate

That's great news! Now, can we get the Google Trike to start going down our alleys? Staircases and paths would be cool, too.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »