Painted crosswalks have become ubiquitous as a pedestrian safety measure across the United States and around the world. The instantly recognizable white stripes lead pedestrians and alert drivers to pay extra attention. But a growing trend involves cities abandoning the blasé white uniform for colorful, eye-catching options that serve both as art and enhanced safety tools.
San Francisco has been at the forefront of the movement, with its well-known rainbow crosswalks in the predominantly gay Castro neighborhood. That idea is catching on in cities of varying sizes throughout the country, including Philadelphia, San Antonio and Maplewood, NJ.
But the trend goes beyond gay pride and inclusivity. Brightly colored crosswalks are popping up in a variety of designs from geometric patterns to symbols that represent a city’s history and culture, such as the sea life painted in some Long Beach, CA crosswalks.
In 2014, that city undertook a $6 million project to revitalize Pine Avenue, its major downtown thoroughfare, with new or improved infrastructure including traffic signals, benches, resurfaced streets, streetlights and sidewalk repairs. Part of the plan involved removing mid-block concrete crosswalks and repaving them with asphalt, then painting new white crosswalks.
A local business improvement district (BID), the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA), stepped in to contribute $500,000 to the revitalization project, with a particular interest in providing a better idea than the standard asphalt and white paint crosswalks. “We can do something better than that, let's look at some alternatives … Why not do something creative?” said Sean Warner, placemaking manager at DLBA. “My role at the BID is to enhance pedestrian connectivity ... We had seen crosswalk art in other cities and thought this was the perfect opportunity for repaving the streets. Let’s have a fresh canvas to be able to implement art.”
Creative crosswalk painting and management falls to different authorities in different locations. In Long Beach, the project came about because of a partnership, but some cities undertake the task themselves.
In other municipalities, projects are driven by community fund-raising efforts, such as the campaign in Denver to raise $25,000 for a rainbow crosswalk installation in time for the city’s pride festival. In Virginia Beach, VA, artists received grants to design creative crosswalks, the arts and humanities commission provided the traffic paint and police protection during street painting, and community members pitched in to paint the street.
Austin, TX has established a creative crosswalks program to “enliven city streets as engaging and safe places for people,” according to the city's website. Community members submit ideas to the city for creative crosswalks they’d like to see in their neighborhood, and the city helps the project move forward if it meets design and material guidelines. The community must cover the cost — which generally runs $3,000-$5,000 for project installation and two years of maintenance — but the community can apply for neighborhood grants.
The paint application itself can take on different forms, with some cities using freehand brush application for the asphalt-ready paint, some using metal or plastic stencils for paint application and still others preferring a pre-printed laminate, like a shrink wrap. Each city has its own design requirements, which often include avoiding colors or shapes that could be confused with traffic signs — such as the colors yellow and red or octagonal shapes — or reflective paint that could cause a driving distraction at night.
DLBA consulted with a number of other California cities “to see their process and how they did it. Each one went their own path and … had a different process and a different method,” Warner said. He recommends municipalities wishing to install artistic crosswalks contact cities that have completed this type of project because “there's a lot of variety and by finding out what other cities have done, you can save a lot of time and hassle [instead of] having to reinvent the wheel.”
Now, Long Beach itself is an example to other cities trying to launch similar crosswalk projects. “About once a month we get inquiries from other cities,” Warner said.
Cities typically issue a request for proposals (RFP) for artists to design the crosswalks. Although DLBA’S RFP was relatively open so artists could apply their creative license, one requirement was that the design “should reflect the history, culture and vibrancy of Long Beach,” Warner said.
The winning artist designed five unique crosswalks for downtown Long Beach. When people view them from one direction, the intricate design looks like “a chronological history of Long Beach innovation and technology. It starts with the railroads and then goes all the way up to… Metro Blue Line,” Warner said. Looking at the art from the other direction, “you can see the images interspersed within that [innovation] image are marine life… an eel or a fish or different creatures and marine life you might find off the coast,” he said.
Artistic crosswalks contribute to placemaking efforts and public feedback tends to be positive. “It was technical to do within our budget, but we’ve had a really great reaction and response from the public,” Warner said.
Cities often install creative crosswalks as an artistic community enhancement, or even a municipal branding effort, but they also can have safety benefits over the standard white stripes. Drivers tend to notice patterns and bright colors more than the tried-and-true white paint on asphalt. As Austin's creative crosswalk website succinctly puts it: "In addition to being fun, they can raise awareness of pedestrian safety."
Although Long Beach considers the reflective white crosswalk border outlines to be the safety element and anything between those lines to be purely aesthetic, some stakeholders view it differently. In the more than a year since the crosswalks were upgraded, “you see vehicles slow down, [and] pedestrians feel that the street is not just for vehicles, it’s for pedestrians as well,” Warner said. “I think overall it has lent an element of safety.”