The Furor Over Artsy Crosswalks Misses a Broader Point About Safety

Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | February 16, 2016

A colorful crosswalk in Midtown Houston.

A colorful crosswalk in Midtown Houston.

Who’d have thought that decorated crosswalks were controversial enough to jeopardize federal transportation funding? That’s apparently the worry that prompted St. Louis to announce last week that it would allow its artistic sidewalks that dot the city to slowly fade away.

Officials in St. Louis told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch they’re responding to a 2011 memo from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which stated that decorated sidewalks of any kind “would degrade the contrast of the white crosswalk lines and should not be used” for safety reasons.

Though the memo is old, city officials only learned about it during a recent webinar.

And yet, despite that memo – which many urbanists are just now only becoming aware of – decorated crosswalks abound in the United States, with many popping up within just past year. At least thus far, no cities have had their funding threatened by the FHWA for the practice. And as Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog pointed out, other cities have interpreted the directive differently and continue to pursue decorated crosswalks that keep the contrast of the boundary lines clear.

The 2011 memo that recently resurfaced was a judgment on a proposed puzzle-piece inspired crosswalk art in Buffalo. St. Louis’s crosswalk art includes a fleur-de-lis crosswalk and another decorated with falling leaves.

San Francisco and other cities have installed rainbow-themed crosswalks in historically LGBT neighborhoods to celebrate the heritage of those communities. People in Portland have been painting entire intersections for years to draw their communities together. Houston has two art crosswalks in the heart of two of its most active communities. Apparently – at least according to one school of thought – these treatments may threaten pedestrian safety by distracting drivers and pedestrians alike.

I don’t think St. Louis officials should shoulder all the blame for choosing to respond this way to the FHWA memo. While the timing of the decision (nearly five years after the memo’s release) is a bit puzzling, you can’t completely fault local officials for responding to a directive that technically could determine their access to federal funding for a variety of projects — projects St. Louis and other cities clearly need.

Still, it seems shortsighted for St. Louis to seemingly disregard the work members of its community have pursued so passionately and to ignore the other interpretations of the memo that many other cities across the country have adopted.

But rather than focus on St. Louis — which likely isn’t relishing the negative publicity it’s garnered following the difficult decision — the better place to direct our gaze might be at the FHWA and its efforts to make our streets safer.

The letter of the law comes from the FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which lays down the rules and regulations for every marker on a public road in the United States. The goal of the manual is to promote uniform signage and markings so that no matter where one is walking, biking, or driving throughout the country, the streets appear the same. This is certainly an understandable aim and one that seeks to reduce confusion and promote safety for all users of the roads.

However, it’s worth acknowledging that the MUTCD (not to mention other FHWA publications and design guides from national groups like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and National Association of City Transportation Officials) offer a plethora of other street design guidelines that would drastically improve street safety well before the crosswalk. It’s only a matter of getting cities to implement them.

Shouldn’t fighting over the paint design of crosswalks be the least of our worries in the grand scheme of street safety? That’s not to say crosswalks shouldn’t be safe. Far from it. But crosswalks should be so far from being the primary means of protection for pedestrians that the decoration in between those two white lines is a moot point. So should the flags some pedestrians carry to make themselves more visible. Pedestrians shouldn’t have to announce their presence. Our roads should do it for them.

Roads are shared public spaces, but they are overwhelmingly designed at an automobile scale and automobile speeds, even in our residential neighborhoods. Pedestrians and bicyclists are too often treated as afterthoughts.

Rather than being concerned with how a community chooses to decorate the inside of a crosswalk, the FHWA and cities should spend more time considering how to make crosswalks into safer spaces by more appropriately dealing with the sections of street leading up to them. A pedestrian-centric approach to street design and safety — elements of which are highlighted in a number of other FHWA guidelines — could be used to make crosswalks into spaces that are safer for pedestrians, bikers, drivers, and art lovers alike.

By the time a car gets to the crosswalk, the driver should have already been told by a variety of other markers — lower speed limits, narrower roadways, flashing pedestrians lights, street design elements such as bulb curbs or midblock islands —that pedestrians are likely present. In other words, if we’re relying exclusively on white paint to protect pedestrians from a moving ton of steel, we’ve failed.

In the past decade or, so we’ve seen a surge of walking and biking in American cities. Many local leaders are recognizing this growing force and are working to provide improved infrastructure for it. Still, most U.S. cities lag far behind the pace we need to ensure that all road users and (and street crossers) are treated and protected equally.

The many Americans who have chosen to celebrate that shift and enliven our streets with public art shouldn’t be dismissed or forced to let their efforts fade away. The apparent rule against painted crosswalks is part of the 2009 MUTCD manual. Perhaps it’s time for an update that recognizes the fact that the way we use our streets is changing — and maybe design should catch up too.

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