A (Not So) Brief

History of Road Signs

in Lincoln

Or, What Stretch Does When Social Distancing

I have always been fascinated by roads and street signs. I have no idea why, but I would point out burnt out stoplights before I could even talk. Growing up in Lincoln, I would often organize “field trips” for Dad to drive me around to look at different roads, and as a result I gained a knowledge of the signage Lincoln uses to designate their roads that surpasses just about anyone (short of the person ordering them). Now that I’m back in Lincoln and practicing social distancing, I figured I’d put this knowledge down so that anyone else interested could learn (and now you know why I’m called Stretch, because the idea that anyone else cares about this obscure topic is definitely one). I divided these up into “generations”, lacking a better word. Because of the sheer logistical challenges of replacing EVERY street sign in Lincoln, many examples of older usage still appear, and so I set out to get a photo record of this.

First Generation

There are not a huge amount of examples of this generation, as these signs are older than I am. In fact, I am only aware of the one present location remaining. These signs are smaller and harder to read, and interestingly non-numbered streets do not contain the suffix “ST”. This is fairly common in towns across Nebraska, even the fact that numbered streets retain it for some reason. All words are capitalized, and numerical suffixes are in superscript; both of these patterns would remain for a long time. Lincoln also opts for a green backing with white lettering, a tradition that has mostly remained to this day.

I first became aware of this style when driving around the old base in Air Park, as many of these roads pass now pointlessly through the abandoned field. However, to my surprise, when I began this project and drove out there, Lincoln has replaced each current road sign with a new residential sign and removed any on closed roads! Thus, the only example I’m aware of is the sign at the intersection of Cornhusker Hwy, NW 12th St, and the eastbound I-80 ramp. Note the condensed text and overall the sign is smaller. I do not know when these signs first gained usage, but I suspect they were posted around 1966, when the base closed for the final time and Lincoln annexed the area.

Second Generation

These are the signs I grew up with, so I suspect they first started getting used in the ’80s. The text is clearer and better spaced than previously, suffixes to street names appear on signs, and most significantly, large signs appear at stoplights, often including the block address. Numbered streets did not receive address lines, as they indicate the address already (i.e. 55th St is the 5500 block), and neither did diagonal roads. Long names often appeared a little squashed or, like in State Fair Park Drive, got moved to two lines.

Interestingly, along Cornhusker Hwy the signs often appear with lowercase, but nowhere else in Lincoln did this occur. As a kid, I always thought this was quite unusual, especially because in some instances it was capitalized on Cornhusker Hwy but not on the cross street sign. I suspect this was done either for visibility along the major highway or because the signs were provided by the state instead of the city, as Cornhusker Hwy is US 6 (and at the time the signs were posted, it was probably still US 77 as well).

Blue signs appear to show privately owned roads, and while they appear with the standard fonts and sizes of the city when intersecting with city roads, they are different within the private neighborhood, and there are variances across town. I assume this happens because of a different manufacturer. This has only increased in recent years, with some neighborhoods opting to drop any semblance to Lincoln’s standard signs entirely.

Third Generation

This change started around the turn of the century. Most signs did not change significantly at this point, but major arterials began to get easier-to-read signs for residential intersections.  These new signs kept the major arterial sign at roughly the same size, but the residential road was much larger. This has the benefit of being easier to see at high speed, and also included the address. Residential signs did also change slightly; they added a small amount of green space on either side of the street name, giving a cleaner and less cramped appearance. Once again, numerical and diagonal roads did not have address blocks. Lincoln did a great job of replacing almost all signs along major arterials at this point, and many still remain.

With lettered streets, a new odd quirk appears in this generation. In the past, residential and stoplight signs spell out “Street” (likely to prevent the sign from being humorously short). Now on the new arterial signs, the logic seems to be that the block provides enough length and street is now abbreviated to “St”. Strangely, it is still spelled out on stoplight signs with the block designation.

One strange quirk of these signs was that west of 1st Street, the “W” for “West” appeared smaller than the rest of the writing.  While this is common in many towns, usually the road suffix (ST, AV, etc.) is also reduced, but here it was not unless it appeared with the address.  North, South, East, and even West designations that appeared east of 1st Street did not do this. Even more strange, this did not occur on the large signs that appeared on stoplights.

Fourth Generation

This change began around 2010, as I had moved out of Lincoln by then and thus was surprised when I would come back to visit. This is also probably the biggest change in signage Lincoln has seen at least within the last half-century; the most significant of which is that lowercase was incorporated into the design for the first time since Cornhusker Hwy’s oddity. I’m going to be honest; this is my least favorite design Lincoln has used. Supposedly this change was made because lowercase is easier to read at speed, but personally I had a harder time reading these than the older signs. They also removed superscript from numbered streets.

My other gripe with them is that because lowercase letters often drop below the line, they frequently had cuts that puts the letters right on the edge, and aesthetically I like a bit of green space before the edge. Sometimes, as shown here, there was no green space left even without such letters, but this was not consistently applied. There generally was a decent amount of green space on the left and right, which I think shows the lack of space on top and bottom more; the older signs were able to have the same margins all around.

At some point during this generation, UNL East Campus seemed to realize that the signage on campus was old and hard to read or just plain absent and decided to do something about it, introducing these white-backed signs that match the style of the fourth generation (but are smaller than the current one, making it look a little funny when paired with a current generation sign).

This generation of signs seemed to be put up at random across town, often only when a sign needed replacing or work was already being done in an area, but there did seem to be a bit of deliberate random phasing into their usage as well.  The font and kerning was much wider than previous incarnations, although on long signs such as “N Antelope Valley Pkwy” it became squished. They were not used widely for very long before the current iteration came into play.

Current Generation

While I was in Egypt, the style changed again, starting around 2018.  This took the changes that the fourth generation implemented, such as lowercase letters,  and really cleaned them up and made the signs look better. The font is much more readable. Long names, of which are becoming much more frequent nowadays with Lincoln’s parkway system becoming more established and a tendency for fancy names in general, fit easier on a sign. There is less concern about a name being “too short” and extending it like before; now it is perfectly acceptable to have variance in sign length.

As started in the third era, residential roads intersecting with arterials have larger signs, but now both signs are generally large. The exception to this is with intersections with private roads, in which the arterial may still be smaller (but not always). Directional signs at stoplights have changed as well; instead of a large sign displaying both names, each name gets its own sign. Sometimes these are placed on top of each other, other times they are placed on the side of the intersection that they occur on. Residential signs also get a small revamp with the font and kerning being more efficient and having a bit of rounding on the sign corners. Many signposts were also being replaced with a silver metal, similar to the county sign upgrades recently. At first the implementation of these new signs seemed to be random like before, but the city has since started doing a systematic rollout of them along major arterials. Minor roads currently seem to be under a “replace as encountered” situation, like when a power pole with signage is replaced, although some areas like Air Park have been totally replaced (see previous remarks).

My absolute favorite change that came about as a result of this is the inclusion of highway shield markers on highway name signs.  I have seen this in other cities, such as Lawrence, KS, and have thought for a long time that we should do the same. Especially with the advent of GPS travel (which I refuse to use as a matter of principle as a map editor) and usage of non-local maps, I feel that this is important. While locals may know Sun Valley Blvd, someone from out of town may be watching for a sign for US 6. These shields were originally only placed on the large stoplight signage, but have since been added to regular arterial signs as well.  

Strangely, this has not been entirely uniform. Nebraska’s highway system includes primary and secondary state highways, the latter of which are divided up into Link, Spur, and Recreation Highways. They are numbered according to which county the highway originates at in alphabetical order (as opposed to the numbering system on license plates, which is based on the number of cars in each county in 1922 and hasn’t been updated in nearly 100 years…) followed by a letter, thus all secondary highways in Lincoln having the number 55 as it is in Lancaster County. It is important to note that despite having a number based on the county, these are still state highways; there is no county highway system in Nebraska. These shields still appear on most stoplight signage. However, while the new arterial signage has gone up along NW 31st St/Airport Road (NE 55C Spur), S 14th St/Warlick Blvd (NE 55W Link), and N 56th St (NE 55X Link), there is no shield on the sign. I’m not sure if this is a size issue (the link/spur would be quite small) or just negligence. Interestingly, NW 48th St (NE 55K Spur) also lacks a shield at the stoplight. I actually asked @LNKTraffic about this on Twitter and apparently it had something to do with the replacement of this stoplight being state-run or something.  This has a mildly amusing result of only Link Highways receiving any city signage, as NE 55C Spur has no stoplights (its only city sign is the one above), NE 55K Spur hasn’t updated arterial signage at the time of writing, and there are no Recreation Highways in the city limits (or technically any city limits if I understand how Recreation Highways work; the highway log book lacks a lot of detail about them…). In addition, the new arterial signs along N 9th St are lacking US 34 shields at R and S Streets.

UPDATE 9/27/20: The intersection at NW 31st St and Wildrose Ln now has a city sign instead of a county sign. In doing so, they included a NE 55C Spur shield on the arterial sign (photo added above).

Another new aspect with this set of signs is there has been an effort to make sure all stoplights have stoplight signage as well. Previously, some of the minor stoplights just used the standard arterial sign to the side instead of a sign on the stoplight mast. This change has helped increase visibility of signage at these intersections. and allows drivers to make turning decisions earlier.

Something not directly related to the sign design that has been improving is making clear where name changes take place. As a kid, it annoyed me that at the A St/Normal Blvd/Capitol Pkwy/S 32nd St intersection, if you were traveling eastbound on A St, there was only a sign for Normal Blvd, while westbound only had a sign for Capitol Pkwy.  Now there is clear signage for both directions.

One of my original complaints with this new signage was the lack of address blocks. While most people are fairly dependent on their GPS to tell them every little detail of their journey, being able to find addresses manually is still useful. Apparently I’m not the only one, as soon after this generation began they began to add small separate address block signs to stoplights, even several that previously had none. These signs are always green, even when a blue road sign is used. Arterial signs still do not have any address block signage, but at least it is easier to narrow down now.

There has also been an effort to make sure all roads are marked, especially where roads begin or where other roads do not quite connect.  N 56th St is one example, and a bit of an odd one at that.  Decades ago, N 56th St went straight through at Cornhusker Hwy and Superior St (then called North St).  Around the time the west bypass was built in the 80s, the railroad crossing at N 56th St was closed, US 77 was curved to the east slightly, and an underpass was constructed on Havelock Ave to go below the railroad.  US 77 was then redirected onto I-80 to head south on the newly constructed Salt Valley Roadway (now Homestead Expressway) instead of through town, and the portion of US 77 that followed N 56th St became NE 55X Link.  However, the old section of N 56th St also remained between Superior St and where the highway curved, giving two N 56th Sts in the same place.  Sometime toward the end of the third generation, there was an attempt to fix that, renaming the curve N Old Hwy 77 and a directional sign for N 56th St pointing to the original road (signage showing this was posted at the intersection of the two roads, but not at Cornhusker Hwy), but when the current generation signs were posted, both are clearly labeled as N 56th St again.  (Also an interesting note: while most Lincolnites today associate Cornhusker Hwy as US 6, it was actually US 77 that was once called the Cornhusker Hwy, and its concurrency with US 6 along the northern Lincoln stretch and subsequent rerouting resulted in US 6 now being called Cornhusker Hwy in Lincoln and Waverly and its usage for US 77 fading out).

Finally, another minor change is that there has been an effort to make sure that residential roads are signed on both sides of divided or wide arterials in order to promote visibility.  Several new signposts have been added to make sure this goes into effect.  This has also been added in places where the road takes a slight jog, making it clear that both directions have the same name.

Overall, I think this iteration of signage has been positive for Lincoln and I enjoy watching it roll out across the city, often pointing out new signs (much to my fiancée’s bemusement).

Other Interesting Notes

I’ve remarked a little about some of the minor changes, such as “Av” to “Ave”. (Small note, I distinctly remember an old Bancroft Ave sign at S 58th St, so it may have originally been “Ave”…or whoever ordered that sign made an oops, and I can’t find anything else to say one way or the other.)  The usage of West on lettered streets has also evolved over time, with old signs spelling out West but not Street (non-West streets would spell out Street except when address blocks were used), while the new signs spell out Street but not West.  I suspect the original reasoning was to prevent confusion with two letters being next to each other.  (I’m still waiting for West W Street to make its appearance.)  However, on stoplight signage it appears all words are spelled out.

Another strange quirk I discovered while driving around is that of the signage along S 1st St. S 1st St is the dividing line between West and no prefixes (Lincoln does not use East premises for some reason), while O Street is the dividing line between North and South prefixes. Along O Street, signage is either the road name sans prefix to indicate it is the changing point (i.e. when O Street intersects N/S Antelope Valley Pkwy, the sign simply reads “Antelope Valley Pkwy” without any prefixes) or, especially with minor roads, arterial signs are on each side with the prefix of that side of the street. N 1st St and parts of S 1st St mostly follow this pattern as well, with signage on either side or leaving off the prefix entirely (slightly stranger when the eastern side doesn’t have a prefix to begin with), but around the A Street area directional signs like the one shown are used. A couple other odd notes about the prefix change: Humphrey Avenue does not become West Humphrey Avenue upon crossing N 1st St according to signage both on the west side of N 1st St and with its intersection with NW 2nd St. Also, along West O Street, at the intersection with NW/SW Roundhouse Dr, the sign simple reads “Roundhouse Dr”, dropping both the N/S and the W; at NW/SW 20th St, non-directional signs are placed on either side of the intersection indicating which side they are on; and at NW/SW 48th St, SW 48th St is ignored completely. There is no instance where the N/S is dropped but a W is left, which to me would be the obvious solution.

Another odd quirk is that I have not been able to find any signs at non-90º (or occasionally 180º) angles since the second era. This means that signs such as the one at S 56th St/Randolph St/S Cotner Blvd have not been made since, instead showing signage on multiple corners that is occasionally confusing. It also means that when road encounter at non-right angles, such as at Dudley St/N 65th St/N Cotner Blvd (the only true remaining 6-way intersection remaining in Lincoln), the signs for N Cotner Blvd wind up at right angles to each other.

Areas of Improvement

A few areas of question or constructive criticism should the fine folks at the city roads department ever stumble across this blog:

  • Yankee Hill Rd and S 91st St: Where does Yankee Hill Rd end and S 91st St begin? At Nebraska Hwy, it is signed as S 91st St, but at the intersection with eastbound S 91st St, the same road has already become Yankee Hill Rd. My preference would be directional signs at Nebraska Hwy. (Also, is that little spur from the old path of S 91st St still named as such or is it S 91st Cir/Ct/Bay/Pl/whatever?)
  • I would love to see the little spur that connects S Folsom St to W Van Dorn St get a name. Same with the little road running parallel to A St along the viaduct at S 1st St.
  • Along NE 2, where does Nebraska Hwy become S 10th St? It’s signed Nebraska Hwy at Pioneers Blvd but S 10th St at Calvert St. I think directional signs at Pioneers Blvd make the most sense. Similarly, there’s no distinction where S 9th St becomes S 10th St; my vote would be at Van Dorn St.
  • Similarly to above, there is no clear point where Capitol Pkwy turns into K/L Streets.
  • Somehow fix the double N 56th St thing. It’s weird.
  • Some sort of I-80/US 77 stoplight street sign at the northbound exit on West O Street would be kinda cool. Probably unnecessary, but cool. Could also be applied to NW 12th St/N 27th St/N 56th St exits too, as well as I-180 interchange stoplights. It is habit to look there for what the intersection is, anyway. I also admit some of my rationale here is I want to see two shields on one sign; the only time there are dual-commissioned highways in Lincoln any more are on the freeways.
  • In the Innovation Campus Area: where does Salt Creek Roadway become State Fair Park Drive? What does Transformation Drive do on its eastern end? What exactly is Court St doing? Some signage here would be nice. Also, name that little road between N 19th St and N 21st St, please. (I assume parts of this will happen when the Cornhusker Hwy plan gets fully implemented, but still…)
  • Why is it Oldpost Rd but Old Post Pl? I just want to know this one.
  • Do the roads that lead from N 33rd St into North Star and between Pine Lake Road and Garrett Lane have names?