March 13, 2018


On the Road (Alice Spawls, 2/28/18, London Review of Books)

The language of the roads is standardised but the handwriting varies hugely. It's not Transport, the round sans serif typeface designed for highway signs in the late 1950s by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir. The official script is Pavement, an elongated form of Transport, but it's only a guide: nearly all the shapes and lettering on road surfaces are hand-painted. Reading the roads every day, you begin to notice the different hands. Some do short, fat-bottomed arrows, with an even triangle for the head; others draw long stems topped with a flashy inverted 'V'. A few are jaunty, most are austere. Some hands are rather shaky and in need of practice: you can tell where a painter was learning or lazy (Dalston has some terrible - terribly good? - examples). But there's much artistry too, starting with the straightness of lines and the even dashes of parking spaces. Where there is variety, it's hard to tell if fashions or individuals have changed. The bicycle symbols that were painted in Islington four or five years ago (that's as long as road paint lasts) showed rather elegant, long, square-wheeled machines with tapered racer handlebars curving back like ibex horns. They only remain as ghosts now, and have been replaced with a new shape, rounder and with the fussy addition of pedals. Road symbols, like all municipal communication, seem to grow cuter but also vaguely patronising. Perhaps out of respect, the latest shapes are painted a few yards along from the older, fading figures. [...]

There weren't any markings on the roads themselves till 1918, when Britain became the first country to paint a white line down the middle to keep cars from colliding. Pedestrian markings appeared later, during World War Two, when the edges of roads were whitened so that people could see them in the blackout. As late as the 1950s many of the markings remained optional - recommendations not rules - and presumably some sort of Brownian motion ensued. Now there are so many markings the roads need constant maintenance and one type of sign has barely faded before a new rule or style supersedes it. Figures are replicated to the point of incoherence: at some places along the cycle routes a bike is painted every three yards. A narrow cut-through I take, not wide enough for a car, has the words 'Look Right' on one side of the pedestrian crossing and 'Look Left' on the other, so close they're almost touching. In other places lettering is bunched up, unreadable; arrows point in two directions; a cycle lane runs into a wall.

Posted by at March 13, 2018 3:18 AM