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July 21, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: San Francisco traffic sign

MailPaul Schreiber points us to this puzzling traffic sign in SF.


I'm not sure what's broken on it.

No left turn, unless you're a municipal bus, or a taxi. Taxi's are not allowed to make a left turn during the morning and evening rush hours.

Posted by: Michael Jones at July 21, 2005 12:24 AM

I should have mentioned, that yes, at first glance, it's confusing. But if you want truely broken signage, I can send you some signs from Houston's Light Rail system (97 accidents in 19 months).

Posted by: Michael Jones at July 21, 2005 12:26 AM

Are you sure? I think it's saying that taxis are allowed to make left turns at all times other than the morning and evening rush hours.

Posted by: josh at July 21, 2005 01:19 AM

Muni is I'm guessing abbreviation for municipal.

Merriam-Webster 2004 edition municipal-relating to or characteristic of a municipality.

municipality- an urban political unit with corporate status. powers of self government.

So this sign states only those of municiple powers may turn here and taxis can turn here between the hours posted (bringing and taking employees to and from work)

The sign can be confusing but the rule of thumb would be if you are in doubt don't turn left. sorry but I must say not broken.

Posted by: tool at July 21, 2005 02:16 AM

Come on Mark, try harder. There's lots of broken things, but this isn't one of them.

The first thing you get from this sign is 'No left turn', which would apply to most vehicle drivers reading it. Then it lists the exceptions: MUNI (San Fran city buses), and taxis, outside of rush-hour.

Posted by: PhastPhrog at July 21, 2005 05:08 AM

"But if you want truely broken signage, I can send you some signs from Houston's Light Rail system (97 accidents in 19 months)." Posted by: Michael Jones

That sounds scary/interesting. I'd love to see them

Posted by: PhastPhrog at July 21, 2005 05:10 AM

I suspect he's pointing out the nice triple negative involved. :P

Posted by: Ben Wilhelm at July 21, 2005 06:20 AM

Is it just me, or is the quality of what is considered "broken" really slipping? That braille men's room sign is the only good content recently.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 21, 2005 06:23 AM

I'd totally agree with everyone else - this isn't a broken sign. It's pretty clear that unless you're a MUNI or taxi driver, there's no left turn. SOrry, but seems a bit stupid/pedantic to consider this broken

Posted by: Nickster at July 21, 2005 07:58 AM

well im not from any of these "big cities" you all seem to know so well.

i have no idea what a "MUNI" is.

if i were driving my pickup there, i would not stop in the intersection in order to read all of this sign. i cant read that fast and that text looks like it would be pretty small from my car. (especially if im moving)

Posted by: country folk at July 21, 2005 08:53 AM

MUNI is the bus system in S.F. so to people who live there, it makes pretty good sense. And even if you didn't, it's not hard to figure out that 1) MUNI might stand for "municipal" as in, city vehicles or 2) if you don't know what it means, you aren't it. :)

Posted by: Dave! at July 21, 2005 09:02 AM

If you were driving your pickup and saw the "no left turn" sign, I would hope you would not make a left turn and keep driving.

The fine print is so that you don't have someone complain or sue because a bus or taxi made the left turn.

Posted by: Jay at July 21, 2005 09:06 AM

"No left turn, except for muni, except for taxis, except for 7-9am/4-6pm/mon-fri."

A triple exception (how does the logic compute??) finished off with ambiguous time periods (which does "mon-fri" refer to?)

Really, folks, you don't see anything just a little bit unclear in that sign?

Posted by: Mark Hurst at July 21, 2005 09:22 AM

Yes, truly what's broken about it is the fact that it's not clear or driver friendly. Drivers are expected to make decisions in a matter of seconds, while facing imminent death from the SUV ahead. Signs need to be more clear.

Otherwise embrace the pedestrian life where we generally don't need to pay attention to traffic signs :)

Posted by: Shannon Riley at July 21, 2005 09:39 AM

Yes, truly what's broken about it is the fact that it's not clear or driver friendly.

Drivers are expected to make decisions in a matter of seconds, while facing imminent death from the SUV ahead. Signs need to be more clear.

It's easy for us computer users to ponder the sign for a few minutes on our screen, however on the road it's a completely different story.

Posted by: Shannon Riley at July 21, 2005 09:42 AM

Phast Phrog: I used to live in Houston. As Micheal Jones said, it seemed like every week someone was running into the side of the light rail train. I suspect it has to do with signs and people's impatience.

As for this sign, it's not broken or difficult to understand so much as it is annoying as hell:

"No left turn!"

"Well, unless you're a bus, then you can."

"Ok, you can turn left here too if you are a taxi."

"UNLESS it's between 7-9am"

"Oh and also, unless it's between 4-6 pm, Monday through Friday"

"Don't ask me if the 7-9 am thing is Monday through Friday as well because I don't know."


Posted by: Faolan at July 21, 2005 09:57 AM

Definitely broken.

Just in these posts there are multiple interpretations of what that sign means.

Signs are supposed to clear things up, not make them more confusing.

Definitely broken.

Posted by: bleedat at July 21, 2005 10:44 AM

i think that i it shud include:

"no hummers"

"except if you need it"

"except if you have no d!ck"

Posted by: kip at July 21, 2005 10:57 AM

Traffic signs are meant for quick digestion. he fact that we can sit back and analyse the sign from our seats to determine what it means is irrelevant. Decoding the meaning of the sign quickly while driving is much more difficult.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at July 21, 2005 11:36 AM

I don't see what's broken, it says no left turn. The fine print only applies to Muni (the buses) and taxis, which are stil forbidden during commute hours. These are common in SF.

Posted by: Michael at July 21, 2005 11:48 AM

It's broken to me.

I thought "Muni" might be some Hispanic abbreviation of "Monday."

I see:

No left turn.

Except on Mondays.

Except for taxis. Except for 7am-9pm. Except for 4pm-6pm. Except days when it's not Monday through Friday.

I'm sure the 4 minutes I spent on that improper interpretation would cause an aneurysm in an actual traffic.

So what's broken, then, is my head.

Posted by: sparky at July 21, 2005 12:00 PM

I gotta chime in on the "not broken" side here, and I'm usually the one arguing the "broken" side.

The overriding message of the sign is quite clear: Don't turn left. If I was driving along and saw the sign, that would be my first impression -- no need to waste precious seconds while facing imminent death from an SUV. If I really wanted to turn left there for some reason, it might take a half second more to scan the fine print and realize that I'm not a MUNI or a taxi, so that part doesn't apply -- I'd ignore it and drive on.

The folks it does apply to (MUNI and taxi drivers) can be expected to have some familiarity with the rules, and thus shouldn't be spending a lot of time interpreting it either.

I agree it's pretty ugly, looking like it's been cobbled together out of several other signs, but I don't see it being a big problem other than perhaps for OCD-type drivers who feel they have to completely read and comprehend every sign they see before moving on to the next. But they're probably still hung up on the last billboard or bus shelter advertisement anyway.

Posted by: E.T. at July 21, 2005 12:05 PM

I would like to retrack what I put in my previous post about when taxis are allowed to turn left. After reading other post and reviewing the sign again it appears that the opposite from what I stated concerning taxis ia the case.

That being said I still stand by not broken since I'm not a muni or taxi driver the rest is irrelevent. Just because you don't understand something doesn't make it broken. the messages underneath the no left turn is meant for a selected group and can be ignored by the general public.

Posted by: tool at July 21, 2005 12:35 PM

oops sorry ia should be is

Posted by: tool at July 21, 2005 12:36 PM

Not broken.

Sometimes one just has to live within the constraints of the physically possible. Until cars are all ran by computers, we will have to have signs like this. Considering the other, even more confusing ways of spelling out the regs for this intersection, not broken.

Posted by: Patrick at July 21, 2005 12:40 PM

It's totally broken, because I almost got hit by a taxi because of that sign.

I was crossing the street on the left side going with the green light. I saw the "No left turn" sign, so assumed the taxi next to me was going straight. I walked, he turned, and we both had to stop abruptly.

A traffic sign really should not have a paragraph under it.

Posted by: Matt S. at July 21, 2005 12:47 PM

Anyone who has a problem with this sign is broken.

If you can't deal with it, don't drive in the city. Take Muni. ;-)

Posted by: Jason at July 21, 2005 01:04 PM

"A traffic sign really should not have a paragraph under it."

That is the root issue, and is why the sign really is broken. If you are teaching someone to drive, do you tell your students to read stuff like this on the fly?

Just because it "can" be deciphered - which doesn't seem to be an open and shut case here - doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Thanks Mark for posting this. I'd like to see the whiners go set up their own web sites and put as much work into it as you do.

Posted by: Pat at July 21, 2005 01:46 PM

How else are they supposed to control traffic unless there are signs? I don't think this could be shortened.

Posted by: Michael at July 21, 2005 02:05 PM

Pat, most of us who have argued that this is not broken are not necessarily arguing that it shouldn't have been posted. It certainly got a good discussion going.

As for the root issue being that a traffic sign shouldn't have a paragraph underneath it, how exactly would you design a sign that conveyed all the info in this sign without one? (I'm not being sarcastic, I'd really like to know if someone can come up with a better way.)

Do you teach drivers to read stuff like this on the fly? Well, actually, yes you do. Look at the "no left turn" icon. Intuitively obvious, right? Well, no ... we've learned from previous posts that in Europe a red diagonal stripe means "end of (pedestrian, or speed limit, or whatever's crossed out) zone" -- part of learning to drive is learning to interpret traffic signs, and part of that is learning which signs do and don't apply to your situation.

Again I ask, if it's broken, how would you fix it?

Posted by: E.T. at July 21, 2005 02:21 PM

How about "NO LEFT TURN EXCEPT FOR AUTHORIZED VEHICLES." Then it's up to some other rule, stated elsewhere, to determine who is authorized. But you'll know if you are and you'll know if you aren't. And you won't have to spend a lot of time figuring out what the sign says. Authorized vehicles know that they're authorized and know WHEN they are authorized.

Well, maybe not. Buses I can see knowing when they can do it since they have a specific and ostensibly timed route. But getting taxi drivers to remember the times might be trickier. But put a cop there for a week and once enough taxi drivers get tickets for doing it at the wrong time, maybe they'll learn.

Posted by: Marshall at July 21, 2005 03:17 PM

Ummmm...not broken....nuff said...

Posted by: DJDAN420FL69 at July 21, 2005 05:08 PM

"How else are they supposed to control traffic unless there are signs? I don't think this could be shortened."

"Again I ask, if it's broken, how would you fix it?"

Signs are not the problem, only complex signs are.

You fix a problem like this by starting with realistic expectations. It is not realistic to expect a driver in traffic to read a paragraph or even a few lines of text, then possibly look at a clock, to make a driving decision.

Drivers understand "No Left Turn" signs in text or icon form at a virtually unconscious level.

The "Except Muni" qualifier is easy enough to understand quickly, and I agree that if you don't know whether you are a Muni, then you are probably not. Also works fine in the form of "Except Authorized Vehicles" or even "Except Muni and Taxis."

But the third sign is "featuritis" in the context of signage. The fact that the signs are added independently, and that the last one has a time requirement and a double negative in addition to the original negative, bogs down interpretation so much that by the time the third sign is added, it creates negative value in the overall experience.

Traffic control generally does not require such complex rules. I think "Except Muni" is a good place to stop. If San Francisco can't live without the more complicated rules they shouldn't look into computer controlled signs that update the rules at the right times, so the sign simply has a "No Left Turn" icon and then underneath it either flashes "Except Muni" or "Except Muni and Taxis." Of course the computer controlled part opens up other, huge cans of worms, and that has to be balanced against the original problem.

Posted by: Pat at July 21, 2005 05:59 PM

I'm kinda surprised nobody has asked the obvious question:

If it's so darn dangerous to make a left turn that it's prohibited...if it's so vital that left turns be avoided that they bothered to put up a sign in the first place...


Oh, and I do have to side with those who find this 'broken' for this and other reasons. Anything that takes more than 2 seconds to read and comprehend is a danger on the road. Anything that takes more than 1 simple phrase is ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated. Make a zone parking or make it no parking, but don't post a "No parking 4-6pm on odd Tuesdays or 7-9am on the first and third Mondays except for the third week after the summer solstice unless it's raining or during a snow emergency" and make everyone either take 5 minutes out of their day to figure it out or just ignore the sign and hope it isn't no parking at that particular moment.

Posted by: Erich at July 21, 2005 07:25 PM

The reason there are exceptions is because MUNI, the bus, needs to be able to go where is necessary whereas individual drivers can find an alternate route.

All a driver has to read is no left turn, except muni, taxi exempt. That's 1 symbol and 4 words. The times don't concern anyone except taxis who already know the city by heart.

Turns are not allowed because there is no dedicated left-turn lane so anyone trying to turn will stop traffic in 1 lane (usually of 2), creating a mess.

Again, this is definitely not broken, if you can't read 4 words while driving, don't drive!

Posted by: Michael at July 21, 2005 07:41 PM

At first I thought that 'Muni' was some hispanic thing too. I would have iterpreted that as 'No left turns unless it's a Monday' then I would have turned and made it a very bad monday indeed.

Get rid of Muni and put Busses or something more clear to those who don't come from big cities, or in my case, come from cities that call them the metro transit system. I would have understood it if it had said 'Metro' or 'Transit' but I bet that half of you wouldn't know that at first glance.

Posted by: Fayth at July 21, 2005 07:49 PM

Muni is the Municipal transit system in San Francisco. It originally was the "Municipal Railway" back when they had a lot of streetcars (other than the mobile tourist traps known as the cable car).

The sign says "No left turn except for Muni buses (all the time) and taxis, other than during morning and evening 'rush hour' weekdays."

I think for the average driver the sign is pretty clear.

I've certainly seen worse.

A few years ago I came upon a parking restriction sign (or actually several) in Washington DC near Dupont Circle that took me and my companion five minutes to figure out. I darned near had to get out pencil and paper to draw Venn diagrams to work through the logic and decide whether it was actually legal to park there and if so for how long.

I think I have a photo of it somewhere.

Posted by: Steve at July 21, 2005 08:56 PM

If Steve's sign on Dupont Circle took 5 minutes and Venn diagrams to figure out, is it broken? What if he interpreted the sign to me "parking is OK" and the cop interpreted it to mean "parking is no OK," would it be broken then?

The MUNI sign is broken because it is so easily misinterpreted. A traffic sign that is not clear is broken. A parking sign that can be interpreted more than one way is broken. Anything sign that is so unintelligible as to require tax math or a judge to figure out is meaning is broken.

Posted by: sparky at July 21, 2005 10:53 PM

Apparently my ability to write is broken.

Posted by: sparky at July 21, 2005 10:53 PM

To sparky:

The San Francisco signs are child's play compared to some of the wonderful "Euro" signage with which I had to grapple while driving in Glasgow, Scotland a couple of weeks ago, all the while trying to remember to stay on the LEFT side of the road and work the gearshift with the "wrong" hand.

Regarding the Dupont Circle sign, I guess it depends upon your perspective as to whether an incomprehensible parking sign is broken. From the city's point of view, anything that raises revenue is working just fine.

Posted by: Steve at July 22, 2005 08:20 PM

If you are not a muni driver or taxi driver don't ever turn left here. This is clearly not broken.

The reason I'm guessing that all the information is not on one sign is that the exceptions came after the original sign was posted.

The idea that it should say No Left Turn except for muni and taxis without the times stating when taxi drivers may turn left is not a valid one. True the taxi driver is likely to know the times he/she may turn left but unless its posted, it can not be enforced by law. So the taxi drivers will be turning there at all times.

>>Matt almost getting hit at the intersection is not an indication that the signs are broken. What would be broken is the driver making the left turn not singaling their intentions. Most importantly the driver was broken for two other reasons 1.He must have not been paying attention or he would have seen you preparing to cross the intersection. 2.Pedestrians have the right of way.

Posted by: tool at July 23, 2005 05:18 AM

>>If it's so darn dangerous to make a left turn that it's prohibited...if it's so vital that left turns be avoided that they bothered to put up a sign in the first place

Nowheres has it been stated that the no left turn was instigated for safety reasons more than likely it was a matter of flow of traffic.

I must also state that this was a good post even though I find it not broken it has caused a lot of discussion. I would like to see a picture of the intersection instead of just the sign the added info could change some peoples minds possibly even mine.

Posted by: tool at July 23, 2005 05:27 AM

What's broken here is hours on the sign. The inclusion of hours on a traffic sign is always a bad idea as they take too much reading to figure out of it's in the time they refer to.

Signs with hours are bad enough but there are some school zone signs around here with hours and minutes and mulitple times per day. They are all but impossible to read because they are small to get on the sign so by the time you're close enough to read them you'll be past the sign before you have it read--and that's assuming the road is empty enough you can focus on the sign for that long anyway.

Then you have the problem of finding the actual time to compare the sign against. With your eyes adapted for daylight brilliance it's hard to read a timepiece in the car.

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at July 24, 2005 01:01 PM

No, Muni is not hispanic. 'Monday' in Spanish is lunes, the abbreviation being LUN.

Posted by: Bob at July 25, 2005 08:40 AM

This is hilarious! Good discussion. I think the stupid sign is BROKEN. I hate signs like that one.

Posted by: Jim at July 25, 2005 12:56 PM

if you're not driving a cab or a muni bus.... never mind. When we are driving, we are usually just waiting for something traffic related to annoy us. Drivers are often looking for a reason to be irritated.

Posted by: Ross at July 26, 2005 01:47 AM

If we could see the whole context in which the sign appears, like an actual driver would, perhaps we wouldn't have our shorts in a bunch over this...

Posted by: Ross at July 26, 2005 01:56 AM

San Francisans are speed readers. But perhaps someone will claim that the fine print on the sign caused them to crash - by causing a distraction. But if someone from out of town doesn't have time to read the fine print, they should move along to the next block anyway.

Posted by: Ross at July 26, 2005 02:04 AM

Maybe signs at the next intersection are less conditional. Or perhaps the next block has an actual left-turn lane.

Posted by: Ross at July 26, 2005 02:10 AM

Couldn't you have put that all in the same comment?

Posted by: Bob at July 26, 2005 11:45 AM

Sure looks broken to me. Ideally, just prohibit left turns or allow left turns. For everyone. Simple, see? You always know how the vehicles around you are going to react regardless of the fine print on a sign you can't read yet.

Or, if you insist on general principle that city driving must remain complex and unpredictable, then go with "Buses and Taxis Only". (No "Muni", please. Use real words likely to be understood by the maximum number of people.) Definitely get rid of the day/time information, though. If that's important then the bus drivers and taxi drivers already know it. And if not, then they it's not like they're going to stop and read it as they drive by.

The whole point of nice standard traffic signs is that they're instantly and easily understood. Hanging all that junk on the bottom is just silly.

Posted by: Bryan C at July 26, 2005 04:34 PM

It's completely broken and I hope to goodness you guys who think it's all perfectly clear are not interaction designers.

But you probably are, judging by the crap software I have to deal with.

Posted by: J. Scott at July 27, 2005 03:21 AM

I parked on that street near the Dupont Circle too. Parked, walked to the sign, then stared at it for about ten minutes. I finally decided that I didn't know whether I would get a ticket for parking there and got on the subway. I didn't get a ticket, but maybe that was because no one noticed, or maybe it was because parking was allowed.

Posted by: J. Scott at July 27, 2005 03:29 AM

The first thing that seems to be broken is reading comprehension.

"No left turn, except for muni, except for taxis, except for 7-9am/4-6pm/mon-fri."

No, that's not what the signs say. There are three signs.

The first sign says graphically "No left turn."

The second sign says, "Except Muni."

The third sign says, "Taxis exempt," not "except taxis." And when are they exempt, "except for 7-9am/4-6pm/mon-fri."

We can argue for a long time about whether this is broken, but conflating 3 signs into 1 and then misreading one of them is going to confuse the conversation.

Erich asks why if it is so dangerous to turn left there are so many exceptions.

Erich, your premise is wrong. It is not dangerous to turn left. Turning left is prohibited because it slows traffic. Drivers going straight and turning right can do so without regard for oncoming traffic. Drivers turning left block cars behind them causing delays. That is why left turns are prohibited. They are permitted to Muni and taxis to speed the passage of these vehicles and thus to encourage their use.

In my opinion, this sign isn't broken for frequent San Francisco drivers. There are thousands of signs exactly like this in San Francisco. San Franciscan know what the Muni is (it's not a metropolitan system, it is a city system, so the name won't be changing to metro) and they have an intuitive understanding of the design patterns used by the traffic engineers.

It might take an extra couple of seconds the first time you see such a collection of signage, but by the fourth or fifth you don't even look at the smaller signs.

For infrequent San Francisco drivers I think that the subtext of the signage is, "If you don't understand what this means, or you can't figure out what Muni is, don't drive here."

It communicates that message admirably.

Posted by: Ray at July 27, 2005 03:51 PM

I imagine that the reason it says "Muni" rather than "buses" is that tour buses are common in San Francisco, and a number of them would greatly slow down trafffic if they were able to stay and wait for a gap large enough to turn left (or they'd need two lanes to be able to fit the turn).

As an infrequent driver in San Francisco, I vote "not broken." The biggest visual to the 3-sign combo is the no left turn arrow. Since that applies to the majority of drivers, it's easy to do the correct thing without reading the rest of the details--which is exactly how I treated the signs my first year here.

Posted by: ScooterGirl at July 27, 2005 05:42 PM

Jeez, this is really simple and not broken. The sign clearly communicates "no left turn". If you are not driving a MUNI bus or a taxi cab then don't turn left, ever.

Posted by: anon at July 27, 2005 07:55 PM

It's TOTALLY broken. I've lived in SF with signs like this for 14 years and I STILL get confused with this sign. The area it's posted in is full of one way streets with all kinds of conditional left turns, not just the conditions you see posted here. So as a non-Muni, non-taxi, car-driving sign reader, I will try to read this sign and see if the fine print applies to me - all as I'm driving by at 15 - 30mph in heavy traffic with lots of pedestrians. Just the fact that I have to read ANY fine print in those conditions indicates brokenness. Secondly, the logic is screwy - are taxis "exempt" from the initial "no left turn", or from the secondary Muni "exception" to the no left turn rule? I mean, this sign COULD be made simpler by using the same terminology for both Muni and taxis... ie, no left turn, EXCEPT Muni, AND EXCEPT Taxis (except during rush hour)... see, it's still confusing. So how about, "no left turn. Muni ok. Taxis ok, except during rush hour." At least then you're not getting the double and triple negatives.

Posted by: dg at July 27, 2005 08:16 PM

It seems to me as if this could be a case of "situational" broken-ness.

That is, having to quickly interpret all that information and make a final decision about whether you can turn or not is a lot to do while driving.

However, if the sign was for, say parking instructions and interpreting the sign does not have to be done as quickly, it may be less "broken".

Posted by: sestina at July 31, 2005 08:48 AM

This sign IS, for sure, 100% broken. I recognized the background, so I know that the sign is posted on the NW corner of 4th and Townsend.

The language on the sign itself is dubious, but the real broken part is the street striping. BOTH of the two northbound lanes are striped with right-turn-only arrows! This is presumably because you cannot go straight (since 4th St turns into a one-way southbound street), but it also means that no one else is likely to see the sign.

I've never seen a Muni bus driving northbound on that part of 4th, and most of the taxis stay on Townsend, so who know what they had in mind.

As an added bonus, the pedestrian crosswalk signal is broken on the north side of the intersection. The pedestrian light is programmed as if it were a normal two-way street to the north.

It erroneously changes into the orange "don't walk" hand (walking in the east-west direction, on the north side of the intersection) when it is showing a green light to 4th St traffic on the south side. Recall that traffic can't actually continue north on 4th St because it is one-way southbound (to the north of Townsend), as I mentioned above.

This sucks because I cross that intersection all of the time, so I typically "jaywalk" and have to look over my shoulder at the traffic light to see if the green light is about to change. I suppose I could wait, but hey, I'm impatient.

Posted by: Scott at August 3, 2005 04:21 PM

Very confusing in my opinion lol

ill say it's broken :)

Posted by: Dina at August 5, 2005 10:15 AM

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