Choreographing traffic remains one of our major urban challenges. And while traffic signs are supposed to help us navigate the complex and convoluted transport network, they occasionally fall short of this goal. Smart and thoughtful citizens like designer Nikki Sylianteng have come up with some helpful improvements.

When, one beautiful vacation morning, young freelance designer Nikki Sylianteng returned to her car, she also returned to a sizeable dent in her travel budget – caused by a $95 dollar parking fine on her windshield. In Los Angeles, this is a common experience, yet one not owed to a penchant for parking violations, but the sheer indecipherability of parking signage to mere mortals who find themselves stumped by the complex rules and regulations. Otherwise known as “totem poles,” these sign-encrusted columns “require CIA training to decrypt,” according to local publication LA Weekly.

A lot of the time, several signs with different – and even contradictory – statements occupy a single pole: One, designating a tow zone from 6pm to 3am with an arrow to the right, sits right next to another one restricting parking for the same spot to a two-hour window from Mon-Sat. But only between 8am and 6pm, while different rules apply on a Sunday …

4-meter signage sculptures

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Right now, Los Angeles probably leads the way in terms of “parking confusion.” Last year, a 4-meter structure with eight different provisions in the Culver City neighborhood enraged the locals. Yet parking rules are prone to misinterpretation across the world, from London to Tokyo and Montreal to Sydney.“Meanwhile, drivers only care about two things,” according to Nikki. “Is it okay to park here now? And if so, for how long?”

As part of her work, the interaction design graduate aims to make everyday objects and actions easier to understand and more intuitive to use – from lift operations to door handles. Against this background, an easy-to-grasp parking sign provided the perfect challenge. The result: her project “To Park or Not to Park,” dedicated to the simplification of parking signs.

Here, a bar chart-style calendar shows the days of the week while red (forbidden) and green (allowed) markings immediately highlight the permitted parking periods for each time and day.

“You should get hired by the mayor”

To drum up publicity and interest, Nikki opted for a guerrilla approach – not least because she wanted to avoid tilting at the windmills of public administration. Back home, in the Brooklyn district of Carroll Gardens, she simply affixed her new parking signs below the official signage proliferation. “I asked drivers to leave their comments and suggestions on a board below.”

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The result was unanimously enthusiastic. The very first feedback suggested, “you should get hired by the mayor.” Word-of-mouth even reached the source and root of the troubles that sparked it all, the US West Coast. Here, LA city councilman Paul Krekorian included her design in a directive on improving the city’s parking signage. Further interest came from Washington, D. C.; Columbus, Ohio; Vancouver, Canada; and the Australian cities of Mosman and Brisbane.

Tactical urbanism goes global

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In America, this flavor of urban self-help is known as “tactical urbanism.” And there are plenty of examples of citizens in urban regions reclaiming their surroundings. While some establish spontaneous cycle lanes, others allow guerrilla gardens to flourish on traffic islands, turn parking lots into temporary cafes, or reimagine empty businesses as community centers.
A trend that has captured the world’s metropolises – from Asia to Europe. “We want to improve our urban environment without waiting for authorities and governments,” seems to be the overriding creed. The first traffic signs, by the way, were used in Europe – now, they have evolved from Roman “milestones” into a global and largely standardized system with slight variations in color and design.

Nikki Sylianteng, too, thinks that most traffic signs – with their historic roots and connotations, now anchored in our collective consciousness – tend to “work very well.” Rather, LA’s complex parking signs seem to constitute an administrative exception: The official guide and commentary on the signage alone covers two closely typed pages.

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Header image: Getty Images/Mitch Diamond
All other images: Nikki Sylianteng