Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Foot Traffic is Prohibited on the Sidewalk

Yesterday I was in Chicago (with a layover between trains) and walked by a printed sign on Canal St that gave me the title for today's blog. The sign was directed toward pedestrians (like myself) walking northbound on the west side of the street and I had to read it three times before I convinced myself it really said that.

The sign was at the driveway portal to a parking garage beneath a major facility of the US Postal Service. There were raised sidewalks on either side of the driving lanes leading under the building, and I reckon they didn't want people using them. Maybe
the sidewalk turned out to be dangerous (people getting bumped by cars flying in and out of the garage), and they decided to shut it down. Who knows.

In any event, the sign gave me pause to ponder a number of questions...

1. Were other kinds of traffic are permitted on the sidewalk? Night crawlers, perhaps?
2. Where would foot traffic be permitted, if not on the sidewalk?
3. What did they mean, "the sidewalk"; most anyone who could read the sign would be walking on "the sidewalk."
4. If they wanted to close it, why didn't the sign say "Sidewalk Closed"? After all, what possible traffic could it have been open to? Rickshaws?

This is the kind of sign that makes fun of itself (though I'm doing what I can to help it along) and fuels that special blend of outrage and humor epitomized by $2700 hammers revealed to have been buried in military budgets. It boggles the mind to imagine the number of bureaucrats who signed off on this sign (so to speak) in order to get it officially blessed for prominent placement in a US government building, without noting that the self-contradictory potential in its message was likely to offer up as much opportunity for lampooning as enhanced safety. But I'll be damned if they didn't print it and post it anyway. What a country!

It reminds me of a Ron White joke where he complains about being profiled by local police because they were pulling over every car that traveled along this particular stretch of sidewalk...

• • •
On a more sober note, this mostly innocuous example of poor signage leads me to lament how low the bar has been set when it comes to what passes as acceptable standards of communication. It's one thing when an individual's best effort falls short of aligning meaning with intent; it's an altogether sadder state of affairs when obfuscatory efforts pass institutional review and manifest as posters. WWPGT (what was the Postmaster General thinking?)

Maybe it'll be a little easier now to understand why the Postal Service needs to keep seeking higher rates for first class stamps. While they're making no claims whatsoever about whether you'll find first class communication inside the envelope, these dedicated couriers
apparently have to complete their appointed rounds while weathering imprecise instructions as well as the vagaries of snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night. I'll bet it's a real gauntlet.

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