Updating the MUTCD: Balancing Uniformity and Flexibility

Read Time: 5 minutes

Published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) defines the standards of road markings, traffic signals and highway signs across the United States—including public wayfinding and placemaking signage. Currently, the FHWA is updating the manual’s 2009 edition with proposed amendments to the Community Wayfinding section. In response, SEGD’s “Community Wayfinding Signage Working Group” is helping to ensure that the proposed changes clarify the current regulations and help support the work of designers for their clients.

In early December 2020, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave a “Notice of Proposed Amendments” to the current 10th edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). SEGD members George Lim (Tangram Design) and John Bosio (MERJE) learned of the Notice in February 2021, two months after the announcement. With public responses due to the review board by May 2021, George and John knew they had very little time to respond.

So, George and John quickly pulled together a Working Group of other SEGD members to decide how best to respond to the proposed changes, focusing specifically on the Community Wayfinding section of the Manual. This section is especially important to designers working in wayfinding and placemaking because it provides a framework for government regulators to approve the design of Community Wayfinding Programs, which are located in the public right-of-way.

In addition to George and John, the core of the Community Wayfinding Signage Working Group includes Jen Bressler (Hunt Design), Phil Garvey (Garvey and Associates), Shelley Steel (Corbin Design) and Jeff Frank (also of Corbin Design). Soon after its formation, Keith Davis (Sign Research Foundation) and Kenneth Peskin (International Sign association) joined too.

“We have all competed against each other throughout the years, but have great respect for each other and for what we have accomplished,” explains George about his fellow working group members. “We all have a common connection in the profession of designing community wayfinding design programs, and that connection is working with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to get our designs approved.”

When the group read the proposed language changes to the MUTCD, they felt the amendments would make the design review process less flexible with perhaps fewer opportunities to collaborate with the DOT reviewers on specific projects. So, the decision was made to respond as a group of experts and professionals who practice in this public sector work—to let the FHWA know how the proposed code changes would affect wayfinding and placemaking projects and how the lack of de flexibility could be detrimental for the diversity of communities served by EGD designers.

“The intent of the Community Wayfinding Signage Working Group was to provide reasonable comments and information that might improve the Section in ways that will assist local municipalities, engineers and designers to implement effective Community Wayfinding programs,” says John. “The implementation is based on MUTCD guidance, engineering standards, as well as the realities of the environment in which these programs are installed.”

During the approval process, designers work with local and regional DOT representatives in the specific location where the new wayfinding program will be installed. In each case, the proposed new signage is vetted through the Community Wayfinding Signage Section of the MUTCD, so any changes to the Section’s language can be critical.

“Many of our comments (to the MUTCD review board) are based on clarification, being more specific with language or offering alternate options to help address the specific needs of how Community Wayfinding is actually implemented,” explains John. “Our goal is to bring the real world design and planning needs and engineering requirements closer together.”

Working group member Phil Garvey is a traffic safety/visibility researcher and was part of the FHWA team that introduced the Community Wayfinding Section into the MUTCD back in 2009. This inclusion proved to be beneficial because it allowed designers who practice wayfinding design to create Community Wayfinding Signage under guidelines, instead of having their designs immediately rejected by DOT reps because the signs might not conform to the official regulations.

However, if approved, the proposed revisions to the MUTCD will take much of that design flexibility away. One example includes directional arrows.

“The proposed changes to the manual require that any directional arrows conform to standard highway design,” says Phil. “But there is enough research on arrows to show that there are several alternate designs which are more legible than the standard MUTCD arrows!” 

These more legible arrows (and text) include those designed using the Montreal Expo style and the Clearview and Futura fonts, which engineering studies have proved to be more visible to drivers than the standard MUTCD fonts.

So, what happens next? The next step is to wait.

The Community Wayfinding Signage Working Group submitted their suggested revisions and letters of support to the FHWA in May 2021, meeting the submission deadline. But the MUTCD is a substantial volume, and FHWA reviewers will need time to read and evaluate all suggested revisions. And currently, the date for publishing the MUTCD’s 11th edition is unknown.

As professionals and leaders in the field of urban wayfinding, wayfinding and placemaking designers do their best to strike a delicate balance between delivering unique civic brands and clearly interpreting the MUTCD Guidelines. The guidelines can be interpreted very strictly by reviewers, in which case their decisions can hamper designer specifications with type sizes, arrows and panel sizes designed for open highways, and not for the character or scale of smaller community streetscapes.

“We try our best to be flexible as designers, however in return, the Department of Transportation (DOT) can lend an ear to the designers who specialize in clear readability for pedestrians and drivers,” says Working Group member Jen Bressler. “There is no reason why we can’t deliver impactful designs with reasonable type heights and distinctive characteristics that differentiate one city from the next.”

What better match could there be than designers and engineers working together to solve the problem.