Those of us who are downtown all the time don’t give a thought to how to get about, but many visitors to the city, unless they ask a friendly citizen, are dependent on signs to direct them. It’s taken years to get the signage for downtown. It’s been talked to death and delayed at every turn. If I consider the decisions involved, however, the delays are not that hard to understand. It’s overwhelming, really. There will be 250 signs, which will replace about 400 existing signs.
For example, given that number and the geographic area of downtown, where do you place the signs? Are you addressing pedestrians, cars or both? Which attractions or destinations will you include and which will you exclude? Which routes from a given spot will you choose to the location listed; the shortest, the most pleasant, the most populated? How large will you make the print? Larger means easier visibility – particularly for drivers, but it also dictates larger signs and/or fewer destinations listed. What’s the design choice, the color, the positioning?
The indications of their pending presence is scattered about the city. The photos above show a couple of the spots, but there are many others. The signs will be stylistically consistent, but will vary somewhat depending on the purpose and location. You can find large amounts of information about the program here. The project is set to cost about 1.2 million dollars, with a split of 80% federal and 20% local money.
So, I took a walk to look at some of the first signs to be placed. I’ll take you through my walk and give you my first impressions. I started at Market Square where I saw one of the holes awaiting signage. I found another in front of the Visitor Center. The first of the new signs to catch my eye was at the beginning of the 100 block of Gay Street. It seemed reasonable. It declares entry into the Arts District. The other items listed are accurate, though I’m not sure who is looking for “Downtown North,” and really don’t most of us call it “Old North Knoxville” and isn’t Fourth and Gill actually closer? But maybe they are re-branding. I did notice the smallness of the print, uncertain I could read it from a car.
A block later I saw a couple of signs. The old signs are bike signs to “North Knox” and, interestingly, the “Zoo.”
[Ed. Note: After publication I heard from Kelley Segars, Principal Planner at the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, Who pointed out my eronious assumption regarding these signs “The “old signs” you refer to in the blog post are not really old–those are official signed bike routes, and they are staying. The wayfinding project is just for downtown, and I think mostly for people walking (other than the ones directing motorists to parking garages). The bike route signs will remain. Here are the signed routes http://www.ibikeknx.com/maps.” She continued, “It is incredibly hard to figure out what destination to put on the route–no, bicyclists don’t necessarily want to go to the zoo, but the east route needed an end destination that was recognizable . . . it’s something to put on the sign to identify which route it is . . . we recognize that most people are probably traveling somewhere other than the named destination, but we can’t put “your house” on the sign as the destination.” I always appreciate Kelley’s input.]
It illustrates the complexity of the task. What are people at that intersection – the ones who don’t know how to reach their destination – wanting to go? Are cyclists at that intersection wanting to go to the zoo? And is through the Old City the best route to see the monkeys? The new sign at the intersection is attractive. Being at a stop sign, the size of the lettering seemed fine, to me. But it’s rendered less helpful to drivers because it sits behind a tree. Even in winter it’s hard to see, let alone read. Yet, it isn’t entirely for pedestrians because it offers directions to parking – which can’t be read from a car.
The Old City hasn’t gotten many of the signs yet, that I could see, but I did see another of the old signs directing cyclists to the zoo. The next sign I noticed is in the middle of Summit Hill facing west, toward the east-bound traffic. It’s larger and has a squiggly design on the back that at first I mistook for graffiti. The side facing oncoming traffic assures drivers that they are indeed headed for East Knoxville. The sign appears to have been damaged already, as a large scratch crosses its surface. I had to wonder, who drives down this road wondering, “Now exactly where is East Knoxville?” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked directions to east Knoxville from downtown . . . well, you know, I wouldn’t have a nickel.
Next I saw a sign at the intersection of State and Summit Hill. State is one of our many dis-connected streets downtown, so I’m talking about the section on the south side of Summit Hill, beside the Bacon and Company Building and within sight of the Marble Alley construction. The side facing east – visible to pedestrians and traffic traveling west, directed travelers down State to the State Street and Promenade Garages. Two problems: Cars driving west on Summit Hill can’t possibly read that sign and if they did and turned left they would be driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The other, west-facing side of the sign directs cars to turn onto State to find those garages. Again, State is one-way in the opposite direction, though the sign could not be safely read from a car traveling over ten miles-per-hour, which is includes no cars ever on Summit Hill.
More may be added later, but currently all the signs on Gay Street are on the eastern side, so traffic driving toward the river cannot possibly read them across two lanes as they navigate the street. The garages included on the listings make it clear they are intended for cars. I assure you they cannot be read from an automobile. As one of the photographs below shows, many of us could read them from a stopped car.
As for traffic driving north, the signs are at least on their side of the road, but I can’t imagine trying to read and comprehend them while driving safely down the street and not killing random pedestrians. Some, as in the photograph above, are obstructed by other poles and signs. The directions to non-automotive related destinations should be helpful to pedestrians.
I found a couple of additional signs on Main Street. I walked west, against traffic on the one-way street. The first sign I encountered was at the corner of Walnut and Main. Clearly intended for pedestrians, I could understand the directional arrows for each of the locations listed, except for one. It indicated that, should I wish to find a U.S. Post Office, I should continue eastward. I could see the entrance 3/4 of a block to my right. The other side of the sign included directions down the bluff to various river attractions. It’s the closest route to the river, though a treacherous one. Unfortunately for any driver of an automobile who might follow the sign’s directions, it’s a one-way street in the opposite direction at that point, inviting a head-on collision. I’m not sure why those directions weren’t included on the pedestrian-only side.
I crossed the street and stood in front of another sign directing me to continue westward toward a post office, while I stood next to the building and could clearly see it to my north just down the block. I walked west another block to Locust, wondering if the next sign would direct me around the block to the post office. Instead, it wasn’t mentioned. A lost person following the sign would be directed away from the entrance to the post office and left with no directions a block later. If I was in a strange town looking for the post office, I would assume I should continue west toward Henley.
So, is it a total loss? No. The signs are attractive, subtle and needed. Many of the destinations are listed appropriately and helpfully for pedestrians. Perhaps as additional signs are added they will be more helpful to drivers. All that said, I can’t really see that anything I’ve said could be debated: The signs are largely not legible from moving automobiles and if they are so read, they sometimes direct drivers the wrong way down one-way streets. The post office isn’t physically in that direction. It just isn’t.
I’m hoping as more signs are added they help clarify some of the directions and I’m hopeful some might be changed a bit. Of course, no sign can fix the fact that there isn’t a good route to the river from downtown. Walk some of these streets, ponder the signs and explain to me how I’m incorrect. I’d really love to be proven so. Maybe I simply do not understand some of what’s going on.