Urban Motorway Signs

You are here: Home » In Depth » Urban Motorway Signs

There's two kinds of motorway in Britain, as far as maintenance goes. There are trunk road motorways, maintained at a national level by the Highways Agency. They're the rural inter-city routes that are generally well maintained. The others are principal road (or non-trunk) motorways, which are maintained by local authorities. There aren't many in the second category - most are urban motorways - and the result is that there are a few local authorities who have to maintain a motorway but who have very little experience in doing so.

A64(M) sign in Leeds
Start of restrictions sign for the A64(M). Yes, over there on the right.

What we're here to discuss is the effect this has on urban motorway road signs. Why? Because almost without exception, they are completely awful. Let's see some examples.

The good

"Good" might be misleading. Our first examples are the cities that have managed to get some legible signs up, despite not following the official guidelines to the letter.

Manchester

The modern city of Manchester has its very own highway in the sky, the A57(M) Mancunian Way. Built and maintained by the Council, this urban motorway has fared better than most with decent standard signage - though a recent re-signing scheme has replaced some of its signs with slightly smaller-size copies.

Start of the Mancunian Way
Gantry sign just before the start of the Mancunian Way*.

Approaching the Mancunian Way from the west, the Council has seen fit to install modern gantry signs - these are pretty much compliant with all the rules and regulations. The brown patches on a blue motorway sign aren't strictly correct, and there's a bit too much information, but you get the message without any problems.

Sign for Brook street exit
Unconventional sign for the A34 interchange*.

Approaching the Brook Street exit on the elevated section, this modified fork sign is unconventional, but it gets the message across with ease - most importantly the warning for the sharp bend. It's the right colour, it uses the right fonts (including the different alphabet for road numbers) and the warning triangle is correctly placed. It carries the right amount of information too.

Brook street exit
Signs at the Brook Street exit*.

Take that exit, and a sharp corner later, it splits. The signs here are original to the road (circa 1965) and are badly faded. There is no advance warning for the split either! An update required, perhaps. But all in all we've found our way without too many problems.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Approach signs in NewcastleThe A167(M) Central Motorway is the jewel in Newcastle's traffic crown. A fine piece of engineering, with double-deck sections and some rather exciting junctions, the signs are unusual and almost always non-standard, but they do the job.

At the start of a northbound entry sliproad, these delightful signs (right) point the way. They're the right colour, right typeface, correct spacing and layout... But what's this? "Follow Jedburgh until signs appear"?

It makes sense but it's completely non-standard and arguably isn't the most efficient way to get the message across. What would be wrong with the text "For Gosforth, Ashington and Hexham follow Jedburgh"?

Exit at northern terminus
Right-hand exit at the northern terminus*.

As for this exit: yes, it's non-standard, and arguably it should have a diagonal arrow instead of a chevron. But all the same, this is a right-hand exit, and there is no official guidance anywhere on how it should be signposted. So given the circumstances, this seems OK - it's big enough, it's well located, though the road number should be in a different typeface. And better than Manchester, all these signs are pretty new.

If these are the better examples of urban motorway signage, we must turn our attention to the poor examples.

The bad

These two are the real outlaws - not content to just deviate from the rules, they are an object lesson in how not to provide direction signing.

Leeds

The Leeds Inner Ring Road is the motorway with two numbers, A58(M) and A64(M). It lays claim to be the country's first true urban motorway, and in engineering terms it's impressively unobtrusive. Sadly the local authority simply has no idea how to effectively signpost it, and in most cases the direction signs are also unobtrusive - to less helpful effect.

Exit sign in Leeds
Exit sign on Leeds Inner Ring Road at Westgate.

Mounted on the entrance to the Westgate tunnel, the first example is the only advance signage for the next exit, which happens immediately after the tunnel. The signs are, first of all, a complete fabrication: there is no lane drop, and both lanes can be used to go straight on. The exit destination of "City Centre" isn't much use either - if you're on this road then you're already there. What part of the city?

On the right, the forward destination is fairly hopeless (the road heads west, but Bradford would make a more sensible destination) and the road number is missing the brackets around the 'M'. A simple way to improve these signs would be to make full use of the height of the bridge and railings to fit more useful information in.

Exit sign in Leeds
Exit sign on Leeds Inner Ring Road at A65 (featuring dive-bombing aeroplane symbol).

Right-hand exit sign in LeedsAnother gantry sign making use of an overbridge, and this one does indeed use the height to its advantage. But there's too much information and the text is much too small (imagine that at 40mph, high above you while you try to change lane). You could easily get some extra space for larger lettering or more space around the text by using the blank grey areas at the top and bottom of the panel. Road numbers do not appear in the correct typeface. The left-hand sign is black-on-white, even though this is explicitly forbidden by the official guidelines.

Leeds also has an unusual feature that is impossible to signpost using conventional methods - a right-hand exit. But despite two useful overpasses on the approach, the advance signage consists of two small signs in the central reservation and this (pictured right) at the diverge point.

The text is simply too small to be legible until you have already committed to passing one side or the other, and there are far, far too many destinations. The last item is "Quarry Hill", a small area that really only contains the DWP building and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and is better accessed from the next junction.

Portsmouth

Being stuck out on a peninsula means Portsmouth has an unusual destination on its road signs - "Out of City". Those signs will point you to the M275, a fine piece of road built on land reclaimed from the harbour that connects straight on to the national motorway network. Despite being semi-rural, it's still maintained by Portsmouth City Council. The signage refurbishment they carried out in 2005 is a disgrace. These signs are, without doubt, the most inept of the lot.

Gantry sign in Portsmouth
Gantry sign approaching split on M275.

The first example is approaching the northbound split where traffic can join the M27 east or west. But what's going on here? Each of the three lanes has its own list of destinations, with some duplicated and some not. There's two ruler lines that end randomly in the middle of a lane. The idea it's trying to convey is that the middle lane allows you to go either way, but this is no way to do it. Additionally, there's no sign of the 'Motorway' alphabet for route numbers, and the destination Cosham is bracketed, even though brackets around destinations have not been permitted since 1994. Even the lane designation arrows are unevenly spaced. But wait - there's worse.

Gantry sign in Portsmouth
Gantry sign at the split on M275.

At the actual split, each destination is listed twice! Why? This is needless duplication that is confusing and misleading. On the left, there is no need whatsoever to include a representation of the tiger-tail markings applied to the carriageway. (East) and (West) should be replaced with the approved suffixes (E) and (W). The horizontal lines are completely unnecessary (or would be if the sign was correctly laid out). And the road numbers are still in the wrong font.

In the background, older road signs do the job properly and thankfully haven't been replaced.

Gantry sign in Portsmouth
Gantry sign for exit to A27, northbound on M275.

The worst of the lot, however, is this awful sign approaching the exit to the A27 just before the merge with the westbound M27. The wrong font for route numbers is only the start. The two tiny panels are completely misaligned with the lanes they refer to (look where the electronic message signs are mounted for the position of the three lanes). The signs are tiny for no good reason, especially considering the previous two examples which are happy to use huge expanses of empty blue space to get their garbled message across.

But saving money by having smaller signs is not the answer: look how big the sign actually is, compared with the two little signs on it. The enormous grey backing board costs money too and serves no purpose whatsoever - all three Portsmouth examples have it. The reason seems to be that it covers the supports that were designed for the original (much larger) signs, but if the provision is already there for a large sign then why not just make a large sign?

Most signs in this section are bad because they're not designed very well. But these examples from Portsmouth are in a league of their own. It's impossible to tell what qualifications their designer had but I find it hard to believe it was in anything related to traffic signage.

The ugly

Glasgow

Once there was a dense network of urban motorways planned for Glasgow. Even though only a small part of the system was built, the unique system of direction signs devised for this network is still used even on brand new signs. It only works in certain situations, and it's really not very pretty.

Butterfly sign on M8 in GlasgowOn the left is a sign where a sliproad splits in two in central Glasgow. Its left panel is in the non-primary colour scheme, its right panel in primary green. The problem is that this is a motorway - note the "end of restrictions" sign shortly afterwards - so why isn't it blue?

Glasgow's signs frequently use non-motorway signage on the mainline of motorways to indicate sliproads that exit the motorway system. It looks twice as ugly on a gantry right next to a blue panel.

Mainline gantry sign on the M8 in GlasgowOn the right is a gantry sign over the mainline of the motorway. It's pretty much correct, except the wrong typeface for the "A803" route number. It signals a lane drop to the A803, but the problem is that it looks no different to a sign for a normal sliproad. There are no arrows pointing the way to differentiate between the two; the only difference is that normal exits where no lanes are lost have two matrix signals under the exit sign (one for the sliproad, one for the motorway lane). And Glasgow is probably the last place in Britain you want to drive without being able to spot lane drops in advance.

The standards

The problem in some of these situations is quite simple. Britain has so few truly urban motorways that a consistent way to signpost them was never developed. The only guidance for motorway exit signs refers to rural motorways. As a result, highway authorities responsible for urban motorways have to come up with their own ideas.

On the other hand, Manchester and Newcastle have used the rural standards where possible and adapted them sensibly where necessary. It's difficult to see why Glasgow saw a need for its own system of signs, or why Leeds struggles to come up with anything better than reams of text on miniature signs. The most staggering example remains Portsmouth, which has gantries set up for full-size rural direction signs (and which, until 2005, held full-size rural direction signs), but which has chosen to waste money on a set of badly designed parodies.

A few ideas

Okay, we've seen some pretty atrocious ways of signposting urban motorways. But we've also seen some justification for why normal signs won't work. What might be better?

Most urban motorways make use of gantry signs; those that don't can probably get away with using overbridges. That means pretty much any urban motorway has the potential for gantry signage. So for a starting point, let's see what the TSRGD suggests for a gantry sign in advance of a normal exit.

TSRGD diagram
A standard gantry sign as prescribed by the TSRGD.

That actually seems to be a pretty reasonable design for use on an urban motorway. You can get rid of the junction number and use two lines of text to fit in your long list of destinations, and still be within the guidelines. But if we're bending the rules, then we want to do it in order to adapt the signs for an urban environment. The following ideas are based on the Leeds Inner Ring Road.

Possible exit sign layout
Idea for exit sign.

Here's an exit sign. It's narrower than usual and stacks its information so that it can be placed alongside a similar straight-on sign, making maximum use of the height of a bridge parapet and railing. Placing it to the left of the other sign reinforces the idea of an upcoming exit on the left.

The top line is emphasised as a title by the wide spaces around it, and includes both the road number and name (the number being rendered in the correct typeface). The name serves as a junction identifier and will help locals who are familiar with the street network.

The destinations are arranged into columns to make them easier to read, with places inside the city on the left and outside the city on the right. At the bottom the distance is emphasised as exits may not be signed at consistent intervals.

Possible forward destination sign layout
Alternative idea for exit sign, using extra lines.

A development of the same idea uses two white lines to divide the logical sections of the sign. This makes the 'title' more obvious: in this case the junction is with an unclassified road and so the road name is even more important. The ability to signpost important streets by name is also worth considering. In these examples I have omitted the standard hospital symbol and brown tourist patches for "Museums", but these could be added with relatively little difficulty.

Possible forward destination sign layout
Idea for forward destination signing.

This final idea is a sign for forward destinations. Its 'title' section emphasises the road name and number of the urban motorway, acknowledging the way that locals will often use a road name like "inner ring road" or "Mancunian Way" in preference to a bulky number like "A57(M)". The destinations are listed in a more conventional way, but this only serves to highlight how much more difficult they are to read at a glance. Really they should be in columns as with the others. The bottom line is a trailblazer for other important routes that can be reached ahead. In the Leeds case this is the three main motorways in the area, but could just as easily be some key radial routes.

In conclusion

The ideas here are not perfect, but they serve to illustrate that - with a little imagination - signs can be produced for urban motorways that are clear, legible, adapted for their surroundings and remain within the spirit of the guidelines.

The problem, of course, is that there has never been any official guidance on signage for urban motorways, and any authority maintaining one is forced to improvise. But if I can throw together some ideas like the ones above in about half an hour, there's no excuse for government bodies to erect the awful road signs that appear on this page.

If you represent one of the culprits, then I'm interested in hearing the other side of the story. Contact me and set the world to rights.

Joe Grocott-James adds:

I'd say that before the recent changes on the M275, the signs were pretty clear! (See Pathetic Motorways for the old signs). One good thing though: traffic for London does not have to go down to one lane. You also fail to mention that London and Cosham disappear from the second sign shown, which I think deserves a mention. Also Chichester appears on the second sign but not the first.

Tom disagrees:

I have to disagree with your choice of the first 2 M275 examples as the worst available. They do the job, and are not particularly confusing - you know clearly where you will head if you stay in any one lane, and where to move to for your chosen destination. So there are 2 choices? Not that confusing unless you read very slowly.

The last one is indeed truly dire. But I would suggest that Leeds has to win hands-down for total uselessness.

Similarly, Glasgow does not win any prizes for following the rules, but if the motorway ends in 100 yards, and the sign clearly differentiates local and trunk routes by colour - not a motorway method, but very useful - then maybe it's not a bad concept.

As for the use of the different font set for numbers, maybe it makes the numbers stand out, but it's really not criminal to use one font set throughout a sign, if the result gives the information clearly.

Of course, all my own opinion, and the last Portsmouth sign does definitely qualify the designer for a putty medal.

Chris Atkins is visually offended:

A little off topic, but something I really need to get off my chest. As much as anything, the signs in the 'ugly' section are just that - ugly. They do their job well enough, the carry the information needed, but they just look so untidy. And its not just the urban motorways - driving from around the M25, I noticed signs with road numbers written in normal fonts and not the usual 'motorway' font. It looks so untidy and amateurish. It all makes me so angry... And it seems to be spreading - some of the later signage on the M11 is terrible.

* Image courtesy of Steven Jukes. More images like these are at his site, Pathetic Motorways.