On a long, lonely drive, highway destination signs are a welcome friend. They assure us that as we press on, we are working towards a goal and that we will eventually find a place where something tangible awaits.
As with most urban infrastructure, there is a story in the details of how these signs are designed. For example, on Highway 401 west, a sign in Whitby states that you are still 51km away from Toronto. In less than half that distance however you will cross the Rouge River and be welcomed to ‘Ontario’s Capital’ raising the question of just what exactly that distance is measuring.
According to the MTO, the distance marked on the signs is determined by the route required to get to the seat of government of the identified municipality. In this case, the sign in Whitby is not telling you that you are 51km away from entering Toronto but that you will have to drive 51km to get to Nathan Phillips Square. In the case of municipalities that lack a formal City (or Town) Hall, the distance is measured to a point called the City Centre; determined by calculating the geographic centre of the built up region.
The MTO is also very systematic in the way it places the signs. Look, and you will notice that signs are always found either after an intersection with another provincial highway or when leaving a municipality that was mentioned on a previous sign. Another interesting detail is that signs in Ontario are focused usually on Ontario destinations. While most travellers to Fort Erie are probably passing through on the way to the border, signs mention the Ontario destination up until the approach to a cross-border city.
The details behind these signs are a testament to the thoughtful detail and careful design of Ontario’s unique highway signage system; defined by utility and by oddities such as the crown and shield theme. They also lead us to think about what we define as the centre of our cities. Just what exactly is the geographic point that formally marks a city? When have you truly arrived in the ‘heart’ of a city? Is the seat of government usually close to this point and is that still relevant to where most people are travelling? Next time you’re reassured by a distance sign on a long lonely drive, this is something to think about.
Photo of highway distance signs by Scott Stewart