Online with the Westmount Examiner as of August 2, 2011
“Sign Sign everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign”
-Five Man Electrical Band, 1971
The current proliferation of assorted public and commercial signs is the subject of continuing polemics both here and abroad. Furthermore, while Monique Beaudin’s recent article explains the issue admirably well (“Billboards are ‘visual pollution’, Quebec group says” Gazette, June 1, 2011), it also caused me to consider my own thoughts and observations on the wide – ranging subject of signage. And as is occasionally the case, that process took me briefly overseas.
Last autumn, while deep in a South Bank Underground Station near Lambeth in Central London, I came upon two side-by-side elevators designed to convey passengers to and from the train platform. One of the timeless ‘lifts’ was totally enclosed in a steel work cage such that it was not physically possible to approach and was, therefore, very obviously out of service. Nevertheless, a sign accompanied the job site and reminded customers that while the restoration was taking place, users should consider using the only other elevator!
It struck me at the time that the notice was totally superfluous, and that we are increasingly-living is a very solicitous society. In that regard, upon my return to Montreal, my harmless study continued on this side of the Atlantic. As a logical follow-up to the London ‘tube’, I started my scrutiny in this city’s Metro system. To be sure, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this town’s underground network also provides a wealth of informative signs, many of which are thoroughly redundant.
Take, for example, a dreadfully tiny corner in the Sherbrooke Metro Station. About the size of a very small bedroom, it was caged off from the rest of the station a number of years ago. This rather inoffensive move was quite naturally accompanied by the requisite tablet explaining that it had been done in order to assist visually-impaired people avoid a pointless junction. Interestingly, however, the somewhat supercilious notice was not in Braille, or in English for that matter.
Speaking of which, many English – speaking Montrealers are quite often unwittingly reminded of the necessity of their next ophthalmologist appointment by a quick glance at the emergency information instruction signs in Metro wagons. While most users, by way of illustration, would be quite capable of deciphering the French text, the considerably smaller version in the language of Shakespeare leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, the English script always reminds me of the bottom line on that same eye doctor’s evaluation chart. The simple fact is that, given their diminutive size, they would be of no use whatsoever in a truly urgent situation. But I digress.
Some otherwise meaningless notices in our subway system are simply totally ignored. For instance, in the client seating section of the customer service area of the Berri Metro Station, a panel informs the reader that the accommodation is for the exclusive use of its patrons. Yet, on any given day, there can be seen a plethora of vagrants sleeping totally undisturbed on them.
Of course, useless signs are not exclusive to Montreal’s transportation network. Some are even found in our universities. In particular, at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) there are several overhead pictograms indicating that people in wheelchairs should not use the stairs in order to move from one level to another but rather employ the neighbouring ramps. Alternately, an adjacent representation instructs walkers not to use the ramps but rather the stairs. Have we unknowingly become a nation of imbeciles?
Much more critically, however, some road signs in this city, although far from unnecessary, are dangerously misleading. For example, the Cathedral Street east bound entrance to the Ville Marie Autoroute presents a singularly unique peril. Immediately upon entering the downtown tunnel, a couple of overhead green arrows suggests the presence of two lanes, yet on a steep descent, and on a sharp curve at that, the access passage rapidly reduces to one lane of traffic. Here, where there should definitely be at least a cautionary notice, there is nothing. On the other hand, and in another area, some traffic panels simply overwhelm the reader with elaborate information. Montreal’s parking restriction road signs are notorious for this.
And so on that note, I end my observations on the subject and return home from that same Sherbrooke Street Metro Station mentioned earlier. Feeling somewhat fatigued, and while waiting for the train to arrive in the station, I lean against one of the support bars placed on the platform wall. At that juncture, I was not in the least bit surprised to see that there was a nearby notice suggesting that I was indeed using the device for the right purpose.