How Digital Traffic Signs Can Help Cities Manage the Curb

Arnab Rahman
April 16, 2021

The curbside is both a critical and flexible municipal asset to our urban transportation systems — parking, commercial loading, ride sharing, and transit are just some of its many uses. Yet, despite the increasing demand for curb space, how cities regulate and communicate curbside information is outdated, inefficient, and confusing.

One type of solution that can help cities overcome these challenges are digital traffic signs.

What Are Digital Traffic Signs?

Digital traffic signs are remotely managed electronic displays that can communicate traffic regulations. They use LED or electronic paper (e-paper) technology similar to an e-reader.

Today, cities primarily use digital signage to communicate critical information to drivers on roadways. For example, Variable Message Signs (VMS) with temporary restrictions (such as no left turns during a specific time of day) can be found on highways or at intersections. Similar technology can also be applied to replace static traffic signage for sharing restrictions at the curbside.

Current Curbside Management

Effective and efficient curbside management starts with digital data. Unfortunately, most cities still rely on physical signage in the field or archived copies of signage-installation work-orders to understand their existing curbside regulations. This limited access to information makes it more difficult than necessary to plan for new curbside uses like patios or designated delivery zones.

Changing a restriction on a street also takes a significant amount of time, effort, and resources as it requires manually locating and updating a restriction (if it’s even recorded), specifying and manufacturing a new sign, and finally having the new sign installed in the field.

Reasons to Consider Digital Traffic Signs

Digital traffic signs can help cities simplify the process to change a restriction on a street and modernize their curbside management practices.

There are several reasons to consider digital traffic signs, including the following:

Greater Efficiency and Flexibility

Replacing static traffic signage with digital versions can considerably streamline the regulation updating process. By reprogramming digital signs to display updated regulations when they apply, municipalities can eliminate the need to purchase and install new signs. Some electronic signage solutions can also integrate with curbside management software to keep signage in the field up to date with a click of a button.

Temporary Signage is Expensive

A curb segment can allow parking on one day and then be closed off temporarily for construction or event parking for a festival the next day. However, the corresponding signage and communication practices are not nearly as dynamic. They can be expensive and time consuming to implement. For example, the LA Department of Transportation spent $9.5 Million USD to put up 558,000 temporary parking signs in 2014, an investment required to communicate new temporary regulations, but one without long-term benefits.

A more efficient solution is to install digital traffic signs in areas that frequently have temporary events — such as entertainment districts or areas around stadiums. This approach has already been adopted and well-received in Australia, with implementations of e-paper digital traffic signs in Sydney’s entertainment district in 2015 and around Perth’s Optus Stadium in 2019.

A Cluttered Curbside

Competing demands for curb space have led to an overwhelming display of confusing traffic signage. Deciphering what regulation applies to the curb space has become increasingly difficult for the average user. Throw in temporary changes, and further chaos at the curb ensues.

No parking sign with temporary COVID pick-up sign

Communicating curbside information to the public can be simplified by leveraging the flexibility of digital traffic signage, as signs can be programmed to display applicable regulations for the times that they apply. As a digital sign can display different regulations throughout the day, the total number of traffic signs in the area can be minimized, which would also reduce signage clutter. The result is a system that reduces costs, increases flexibility, and makes curbside regulations simple to understand for everyone.

Implementation Considerations

E-paper and LED signs have previously been limited by narrow operating temperature requirements and small colour ranges. However, low temperature e-paper solutions and coloured e-ink technologies are becoming readily available. Several LED solutions that are not limited by colour or temperature are also available.

Digital signs do carry higher initial capital costs than their static counterparts. A typical LED sign about the size of a ‘no parking’ sign costs between $2000 and $3000 USD, plus installation costs. However, by eliminating the need to replace these signs as regulations change, bag them for events, or add new signage for temporary conditions, the total costs can be reduced over a period of seven years.

The Verdict

Curbside management and communication practices need to keep up with growing demand. Innovative tools like digital signage can help bridge the gap between outdated practices and modern curb uses. This technology can also help cities minimize costs while maximizing the efficiency of their curb space.

With the rising importance of CAVs, and smart city technology moving so fast, a future where traffic signage is reconceptualized does not seem far away. Who knows? Maybe we’ll eventually arrive at a future where our urban transportation systems become connected enough to eliminate all traffic signage?

Arnab Rahman
Arnab is a fourth year student pursuing a Bachelor of Applied Science in Engineering at the University of Toronto. He is currently completing his co-op at IBI Group as an Intelligent Transportation Systems Engineering & Product Development Intern.
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