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  • Ren Gudino

Is City Signage the Most Important & Most Neglected Part of Infrastructure?

No one would argue whether or not highway and interstate signage are important. From the mundane trip to the grocery store to a family road trip, you look for signs that indicate you’re on the right interstate or signs stating the next exit on your journey. You even determine your gas station stops based on the mileage left before your destination, which is also indicated by a sign. However, signage isn’t a prioritized concern in many cities, as seen by the Birmingham, AL locals this past June as the World Games neared.

Locals expressed disappointment in their city’s representation, suggesting that bent, broken, or faded signage leaves a bad first impression on prospective tourists. Can you blame them? With GPS and mapping apps on our phones, we no longer have to worry about planning out a course in advance, familiarizing ourselves with surroundings as indicated on a map, the good ol’ days of, “You’ve gone too far if you’ve reached the train tracks.” With satellite imaging to give us turn-by-turn directions, the biggest concern is missing a street or exit because of missing or illegible signage. No one wants their city to feel unwelcoming, where only locals know the routes to popular locations. The state Departments of Transportation and Tourism shouldn’t want that either. Instead, with tourism being one of the major sectors of the global economy, bringing economic growth directly to a location, state governments should go out of their way to welcome as many people as possible. When someone leaves a city after struggling to find or reach their destination, their negative review will dissuade others from traveling to that region.

Though Birmingham locals were concerned for visitors entering the city, low-quality signage also affects the regional pride for the place they call home. In 2019, NPR published an article about the lack of updated signage in southeast Virginia. Locals mentioned missing their own exits when a sign had been knocked down, wondering when it would be erected again. Others talked about the lack of reflectivity, making the signs impossible to read at night. Residents felt neglected by the state department of transportation, unsure if their concerns were noticed or heard.

Aside from adding time to a person’s route on their way home, unclear signage can also be dangerous. People driving under stress are more likely to be frustrated and cause an accident. Distracted driving is one of the top ten causes of traffic collisions and struggling to make out the words on a broken, bent, faded, or non-reflective sign at night draws attention away from the road and other drivers.

These articles expressed unmet needs for infrastructure: an issue that Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure package should be addressing in the next five years. The over 500 billion dollar plan is looking to improve roads, bridges, railways, mass transit, and more, with the end goal of creating more efficient transport routes for goods and produce, tackling the climate crisis, and boosting the economy of individual communities to increase efficiency, safety, and accessibility in rural and urban areas. The infrastructure bill was passed into law in November 2021 and cities in Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee have already started massive projects that will greatly benefit not only the locals themselves but anyone traveling through these locations.

As major changes are happening across the country, states are encouraged to apply for portions of this grant to go toward improving their own infrastructure. Not every state needs to pitch a renewable energy snow-melt system–some just need to improve their signage. When a city ignores the need for small changes that can improve the safety and well-being of its residents, the drivability for visitors, and efficient and safe transport of goods, you have to wonder what is being prioritized. When you improve your signage, you improve your city for everyone.

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