The rise of city signage a step in wrong direction
First it was traffic lights; then cycle lanes. Now, says Michael Wolsey, Belfast is turning into the lost and found of road signs
Thousands of signs have been removed from the streets of London recently. They include duplicated direction signs, contradictory instruction signs and meaningless graphics, like the one of a plane in flight that gives no indication which, if any, airport it is pointing to.
No one has missed these signs. At best, their removal has made the city a safer place to drive through; if nothing else, it has improved the look of the streets.
The signs were removed in response to a campaign to 'declutter' urban streets. Last week, Hampshire and Somerset councils decided to follow London's example.
"There are too many unnecessary signs blotting the landscape,'' said Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. "We need to make old, confusing and ugly signs a thing of the past.''
Mr McLoughlin wants local authorities to conduct an audit of their road signs. If Belfast City Council intends to follow his advice, it should start at Shaftesbury Square, which looks as though it was built as a depot in which to store unwanted and irrelevant signs.
It is not a real square, of course, but a sprawling junction into which six busy roads empty their traffic. Real squares have a central plaza, which often contains an impressive building, like the City Hall in Belfast's Donegall Square.
The centre of Shaftesbury Square is a glorified traffic island. All it contains are signs. Some of them are duplicated and none of them is easy to read.
One appears to have been left behind by a road repair gang. 'Diversion ends,' it says. When, or where, the diversion started is a mystery.
To conduct my own audit of the signs at Shaftesbury Square, I began on University Road, beside the Crescent Arts Centre.
I crossed to the foot of Botanic Avenue, walked down one side of the square as far as Dublin Road, crossed over to the junction with Great Victoria Street and walked up the other side, to where Sandy Row meets the Lisburn Road.
The walk takes less than five minutes. In that time, I counted 38 street signs. And I may have missed a few.
Three signs point to youth hostels but, since they provide no location, they are about as useful as a needle-locator that leads to a haystack. Two of these signs are side-by-side, both pointing vaguely in the direction of Sandy Row. One contains only graphics; they show a pine tree and a lodge of the sort you will find in forests.
Now Sandy Row has many attributes, but pine trees aren't among them and its lodges are of the Orange, not the log-cabin, variety.
A sign at the foot of Botanic Avenue says 'Arts Theatre'. I think that may be a reference to the little-known Belfast Civic Arts Theatre, rather than the better-known Crescent Arts Centre, because that has a direction sign of its own immediately across the road from its front door.
It's a waste of space, since anyone standing there need only look over the road to see the Crescent building, with its name clearly displayed.
There are at least four signs to the small Botanic railway station, two of them right beside each other, but only one to the much busier train station at Great Victoria Street, which is also a major hub for country buses. A lot of the signage around Shaftesbury Square is devoted to warnings about an 'urban clearway' and advice on bus and cycle lanes. These signs are widely ignored, as are those threatening fines for littering.
Every third lamp-post has a notice warning that it is illegal to consume alcohol on the street. Anyone who has ever been in Shaftesbury Square, or Bradbury Place, on a Saturday night will realise that these are held in even less respect than the litter warnings.
It might help if they could be read from the footpaths, but they all face into the road. Who are they aimed at? Drinking drivers, maybe? Or drunks weaving among the cars?
Shaftesbury Square may be Belfast's worst location for confusing signs, but it is by no means unique. Check out the junctions at Oxford Street, York Street, or Bridge End and you will find a similar plethora of signs, warnings, advice and restrictions - and more arrows than were seen at the Little Big Horn.
Look down and things are just as bad. Traffic lanes meander and merge in random fashion. Green cycle lanes pop up and vanish again a few metres later. They lead nowhere in particular and they don't join up.
Many pedestrian crossings now have green markings that appear to point cyclists in the same direction as those crossing on foot. I have met no one who knows the meaning of these little bits of green. Is it that you can push a bike over the crossing? Blindingly obvious, I would have thought. Or that you can cycle across? A bit dangerous, surely?
Or did the planners just have a surplus of green paint they didn't want to waste?
They should use it to paint over a few pointless signs.