Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Toronto street sign

I'll take this opportunity to respond to, or expand on, a couple of Andrew Spicer's recent postings. The first one deals with an issue that I have been meaning to discuss for a while, but put off: the desecration of the Toronto street sign.

Toronto's street sign is a bit of a classic. Along with the curvy, characteristic street light fixtures (watch for them in movies and TV programs — to the trained eye, it's an obvious giveaway that it was filmed in Toronto), they make up some of the street fixtures in the city that are taken for granted but that state emphatically, "You are in Toronto." The sign design (and the street light fixture design, for that matter) has been around since at least the 50's, probably earlier, and has inspired copycat versions across the GTA.

More recently, though, it's inspired a copycat version not in the 905, but in Toronto itself. The City has decided that it's time for an overhaul, and has begun to replace the signs with new ones that are much larger, feature a different font, and are constructed more cheaply.

I first noticed them along Lake Shore Boulevard between Coxwell and the Don Valley, and assumed that they were to be introduced on higher-speed roadways in order to increase legibility at higher speeds. Before long, though, they started to pop up on local streets in the Beach, too. These are signs designed to be read by drivers traveling at 60 km/h or more; in local neighbourhoods, they replace signs that had a subtle elegance with new ones that are graceless, clumsy and intrusive.

The smaller-scale location also allow for a closer look at the construction: instead of two separate panels enclosed in a black outer casing, there are simply two metal signs bolted together. The older signs are topped with a black "point" (yes, I believe that is the technical term for it), whereas the newer ones simply add a black point to the individual sign panels.

It's not the cheaper construction and updated font by themselves that drive me nuts. Toronto's street signs have already survived one redesign — take a close look and you'll notice that some signs have embossed letters on enamel signs, while others have "pasted-on" letters in a more modern font and are made of a somewhat weaker metal (i.e. more susceptible to being bent by vandals). That first redesign featured subtle changes likely designed to make the signs more readable and more economical to make. With this, the signs' second redesign, though, the changes have gone from the subtle to the extreme. To me, it's like playing Schubert's 9th symphony on a synthesizer and claiming it sounds almost like the real thing (and done more economically to boot!).

But I'm the one who's had an unusual (and at times, unhealthy) obsession with traffic signs since I knew how to read. Surely Joe Public doesn't care about this type of mundane thing. So I was pleasantly surprised to see an article in the Star a few weeks back, going over the new signs and (in my opinion) generally panning them. They made an appropriate comparison to New Coke — changes intended to improve an existing classic product while being imperceptible to the public, that instead caused a massive uproar. (Perhaps "massive uproar" is taking it a bit far in this case, but I think the basic premise is apt.) I do take issue with the photo they've used; the perspective of the shot makes it appear as though the two signs are pretty much the same size, whereas the new sign is on the far corner of the intersection and thus is actually much bigger.

Anyhow, Mr. Spicer has picked up on it as well (and has rescued for me a URL that I thought I had lost — thanks!). So perhaps there is hope yet for the troubled Toronto street sign. Andrew states, "I expect a backlash when people start to see them in urban residential neighbourhoods, off the main streets," and that's already upon us (for one example, see Williamson and Southwood). I may well followed his implied advice and write a couple of letters...

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