2018 saw the highest number of pedestrian deaths in over 30 years. Such a disturbing trend is based on a web of issues, such as distractions from cell phones, and an increase in larger vehicles on the road, that may be leading factors in the uptick. However, at a basic level, danger for pedestrians is baked into our infrastructure system, and how we prioritize mobility. As it stands, our built environment is designed to move cars, not people.
With the increase in pedestrian deaths, cities and communities around the country are looking at ways to improve safety for pedestrians - the most vulnerable road users. One area that seems to be catching everyone’s attention, is a concept called tactical urbanism. The most visible version of this is the use of colorful crosswalks and sidewalks, which are growing in popularity around the country (see photo above from Irvine, Calif.). Rochester, New York, the subject of a recent NPR story which highlighted their use of piano key sidewalks, and red, yellow, and green intersections, is also an example of how this colorful picture of pedestrian safety may not be as simple as it seems.
On one side, the colorful streets have a traffic calming effect causing drivers to slow down, be more alert, and take notice of their surroundings. Those who support this idea state that activities such as painting colorful sidewalks communicate a message to drivers that they need to pay attention, which calms traffic, and improves safety. The ripple effect of slower traffic can create a more inviting space, encouraging the use of the streets by cyclists or pedestrians, and building a safer community overall. These too can impact public health by encouraging active transportation or outdoor recreation.
Yet, some feel these colorful intersections can lull both drivers and pedestrians into a false sense of safety. While they may create a sense of community, and bring more residents to outdoor spaces, the actual safety impact is difficult to prove. The NPR article notes that both St. Louis, Missouri and Lexington, Kentucky removed colorful intersections after concerns that the artwork could actually be a distraction or cause confusion for drivers. Government officials in Kentucky expressed explicit concern regarding liability issues in the event of pedestrian/vehicle collision, as well as the argument that these colorful sidewalks actually create an environment of general confusion for motorists, pedestrians, and other jurisdictions who may see the markings which don’t match crosswalks in their other areas of the city, or in other cities.
Federal officials seem to be walking a similar tightrope in terms of supporting or removing these types of infrastructure changes and have flip-flopped positions in recent years. Despite previous notes from the Federal Highway Administration stating that colorful intersections can bring a number of benefits including improved safety to better public health, recent rulings have been somewhat unclear in whether or not colored sidewalks are allowed. Readings of the rule vary based on the city. Some have eliminated all colorful or unique sidewalks, while others such as Baltimore or Seattle have determined that as long as you can see white transverse lines, you can do almost anything in between them.
While talking about colorful sidewalks adds a fun, creative spin to the discussion of pedestrian safety, we all know that the “success” of these projects in creating a safer environment does not exist in a vacuum. Pedestrian safety also relies on the existence of a network of sidewalks, crosswalk signals, and access to other forms of transportation such as cycling, or public transit. While colorful sidewalks may be a great (and cheap) way to start a discussion around community mobility, they are just one piece of a larger puzzle.
The colorful sidewalk discussion is a microcosm of the greater world of mobility management where we constantly must solve problems creatively while keeping the overarching policy structure in mind. Living in a car-centric world may have barriers, but it means that the opportunities for people-centric mobility are wide-open for the taking, you may just need a little paint.