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Traffic Sign Design/Signing Strategy

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Direction signs appear on all categories of road, from major motorways to insignificant back roads. They perform an important role of not just getting road users to where they wish to be, but also in passive network management to influence the route traffic takes from origin to destination. But what actually goes into the decision of what to actually place on a direction sign and who actually gets involved.


The majority of new direction signs are generally a like for like replacement of an old sign. It may be that the old sign is past its useful life, or that the old sign has been damaged or stolen. However most highway authorities will encounter a situation when the routing communicated on the existing direction signs does not reflect the actual needs of the authority or of the local residents and businesses.

Some highway authorities will already have an existing signing strategy that can be modified, others might have strategies for elements of routes, say for example major routes, routes for HGVs etc., and some highway authorities will have no record except for the existing signs.

Why Change?

A common trigger for changing what information is depicted on direction signs is a significant change to the road network: this might be a new bypass, an upgrade of existing roads to make them more suitable for increased traffic, or a downgrade of a road that means traffic needs to be routed away from an area. Each significant change to the road network can create changes to direction signs for tens of miles around, so discussion with key stakeholders (other highway authorities, local businesses, local elected members) is important from the outset.

Hierarchy of Destination

The road network is essentially a series of links between places that people and goods need to travel between. It is therefore essential that traffic that needs to travel a long distance, does so on routes that are appropriate for long distance traffic, to ensure journey time reliability, increase fuel economy (operating costs) and improve safety and the built environment for residential areas.

On a national scale, the most important places in the country are directly connected to each other by major roads. This began with early roads and is how the trunk and motorway network developed. However, unlike the early roads, the roads of the 20th century needed to serve a more complex role in getting people and goods between places, to ensure that getting from A to Z didn't require the knowledge of where B, C, D, etc. were. Accordingly, the most direct route isn't always the most suitable route for long distance traffic and many major cities are linked by what would appear to be a very indirect route.

Today we have a clear hierarchy of regions and primary destinations set out by the DfT to guide road users on long distance journeys. These routes are identified to road users by means of the colour of the direction signs, which is replicated on some maps. What is not so clear though is a hierarchy of local destinations, which is by and large determined on a local level. The key elements identified by the DfT are:

Regional Destinations

There are a number of Regional Destinations authorised for use by the DfT, these are: The NORTH, The SOUTH, The WEST, The NORTH WEST, The NORTH EAST, The SOUTH WEST, The LAKES, The MIDLANDS, NORTH WALES, SOUTH WALES and SCOTLAND. Regional destinations always appear in the format shown. The NORTH WEST is that part of England to the west of the Pennines; The NORTH is that part of England to the east of the Pennines.

Primary Destinations

Primary Destinations are the key target destinations that are shown on direction signs along the motorways, principal road network (A Roads) and other roads. These destinations are important key points along a motorway or principal route and are used in combination with local place names that are defined by each local highway authority. Primary destinations will appear above local destinations on direction signs due to a furthest first rule in the design guidance, and will generally appear in closest first order on route confirmatory signs.

Local Destinations

At the local level, ie. within a single highway authority (including minor cross boundary links), the importance of destinations is very much decided at a local level, with most geographical places being listed on signs as appropriate to their level of importance to the individual highway authority. These local destinations may also appear alongside the regional and primary destinations when appropriate, but should always appear below primary destinations to ensure that long distance continuity is maintained. Some highway authorities further differentiate the importance of primary destinations by placing local destinations on separate signs or assemblies; some prefer to bend the design rules a little by using a slightly smaller sized text (x-height) for local destinations.

Hierarchy on the Signs

The order of importance on destinations will vary, but in general highway authorities adopt a hybrid hierarchy for local destinations under that of the regional and primary destinations and would include the following:

Regional Destinations

These are used sparingly and would generally be seen only at key points on the motorway and principal road network and would appear above any reference to motorways.

Primary Destinations

These should appear on all motorway and principal route signs, identifying the next closest primary destination in each direction along the primary routes.

Although closely associated with Primary Destinations, motorways are considered to be a primary destination for traffic leaving an urban area and would generally appear at the top of any direction sign that doesn't have any regional destinations. It is common to use splits to different junctions, for example a sign might have (M1 South) and (M1 North) pointing in different directions as appropriate to routing of traffic from the origin.

For example, from central Sheffield, the following are signed:

  • Motorway (M1, M18)
  • Barnsley
  • Rotherham
  • Sheffield

Manchester is not signed from central Sheffield, because the A57 is not a primary route.

On reaching the motorway junctions, more strategic places will be added to the signs, this would generally always be the regional destination, but can sometimes include the next major primary destination or the ultimate end point of the motorway. For example, in Sheffield it could include:

  • The NORTH
  • Leeds
  • Barnsley


  • The SOUTH
  • London
  • Nottingham
  • Doncaster (M18)

Geographical Places

These are generally taken from Ordnance Survey maps and likely to be the next geographical place along a route. Larger places may actually chose key local places as an intermediate destination between a primary and local. Using the Sheffield example again, key places would include just:

  • Bakewell
  • Castleton
  • Chapeltown
  • Meadowhall
  • Mosborough

Key locals are likely to have route numbers associated with the destination.

All other geographical places are likely to be signed from the nearest major road or junction and would generally relate to the business centre of that place, ie. the shopping area. Other geographical places are less likely to have route numbers associated with them for clarity. However, depending on the total number of place names on a sign, route numbers could also be added.

A&E and Hospitals

A key location for any urban area and again, the level of signing will depend very much on local agreements with the NHS Trust and the operational needs of the local area. Some highway authorities will develop a selection of signed routes to hospitals, splitting them down into A&E and individual sites as appropriate, other authorities are less generous and will only sign from the nearest major road.

Tourist Attractions

The signing of attractions is often difficult, in terms of the competitive nature of how these attractions operate. Whilst it may seem unfair to give a competitive advantage to a specific tourist attraction that is in isolation, over a collection of tourist attractions that co-exist at a major location, the clarity of signing must be maintained. It is not uncommon for tourist attractions to be grouped together under a collective name and direct motorists to the most appropriate car park near all of the attractions.

Most new tourist signs are paid for by the attraction. However other funding mechanisms, in particular regeneration funding from organisations such as Objective One and Yorkshire Forward, will often provide funding to allow the highway authority to collect together a series of tourist attractions and provide subsidised or free signing, especially for recognised and established attractions.

Business Sites

Whilst it is generally accepted that businesses are not signed from the public highway, it is often the case that a business is the centre for many other businesses. Many highway authorities will consider these to be destinations in their own right. These might include shopping centres, retail parks and business parks. Signage for these developments is often provided by a developer under a Section 278 Agreement.

Traffic Sign Design
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Traffic Signs
TypesInformation (UK TSRGD) • (IRL TSM) • Regulatory (UK TSRGD) • (IRL TSM) • Warning (UK TSRGD) • (IRL TSM)
UKAnderson report • Worboys report • Traffic Sign Design • TSRGD and TSM (Motorway alphabet • Transport alphabet) • Guildford Rules
IrelandTraffic Signs Manual
MiscellaneousList of Street Furniture Manufacturers

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