In Columbia, out with the old - street signs

Officials say new design is easier to read


Responding to laments from frustrated motorists, Howard County public works officials gradually are replacing Columbia's distinctive - but hard-to-read - street signs with rectangular signs that have a more traditional design.

The changes, which allow for larger print than the older, box-like signs, are in line with signage recommendations from a federal government manual and may be especially welcome for older drivers who complain about difficulty reading the current signs on the fly.

"This was primarily done to get the letter-size larger, and the visibility is so much better," said Mark DeLuca, chief of the traffic engineering division of the Howard County Department of Public Works. He said the effort has been under way since 2000.

When James W. Rouse and planners were creating Columbia in the 1960s, they purposely chose a street sign design different from those typical in other communities around the county, said Robert Tannenbaum, who was chief architect and planner for Columbia from 1963 to 1970.

"We thought other signs were entirely out of proportion and wanted ... to look different from other street signs," Tannenbaum said.

But officials now say motorists and residents complain that those distinctive signs - with their 3-inch print - make some of Columbia's streets hard to find.

The county has experimented with Columbia street signage in the past by adjusting fonts and other details to increase visibility, DeLuca said. But a 2000 U.S. Department of Transportation report on traffic control devices led officials to begin replacing Columbia's signs for increased visibility.

Since then, the county has steadily replaced damaged, vandalized and otherwise missing street signs with the new design, which features letters about 5 1/2 inches tall.

The updated signs also include a metal pole base, a contrast with the wooden posts that hold the old street signs. DeLuca said the wooden posts have been known to warp and damage easily.

Public works personnel also are adding large street signs on traffic signal poles at major intersections and placing signs before intersections to give motorists extra time to react.

DeLuca could not estimate what percentage of the signs bearing the more-than 1,000 Columbia street names have been replaced, and he said no deadline has been set. He said the cost is roughly the same as the previous cost of replacing a sign, about $75 for ma- terials, plus labor.

The new signs have received a mixed reaction from residents in the planned community.

When Wilde Lake village resident William Santos noticed them on his street in 2001, he feared that a staple of Columbia's architecture was being eroded.

"When I first saw the new signs, I had a negative reaction - I grew up in Columbia, and that was part of what made Columbia unique," Santos said. "It was not just the whimsical names, but the signs too had a different aspect than the signs you see in other places."

But Santos said he has grown accustomed to the design.

"I understand the intent and the purpose of the street signs," he said. "Now, when I drive up and down the roads, it's somewhat innocuous."

Barbara Russell, a longtime resident of Columbia and member of the Columbia Association board of directors, said Columbia's unique street signs are not worth keeping if newer ones can provide better visibility, especially for older drivers.

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