Fall 2016 Issue

Creative Crossings

Changing the Function and Design of Crosswalks

Elena Christopoulos, Commissioner, City of Santa Monica
A crosswalks on Ocean Avenue at Broadway in Santa Monica, California, are painted to look like a sunset and sunrise.

Cross Ocean Avenue at Broadway in Santa Monica, California and you can see the sun slowly rising, painting the sky in oranges and reds. This vibrant scene, with the Pacific Ocean in the distance, is visible at any time of day—it’s painted on the pavement. 

Santa Monica is one of many cities across North America that has been getting creative with crosswalks at busy intersections. Some cities are changing the function of crosswalks, introducing curved walkways that follow the flow of pedestrian traffic or diagonal crossings. A number of cities are decorating their crosswalks, partnering with schools and artists to celebrate history, ethnic identity, color and whimsy. While the projects vary from city to city, the goal remains the same—to improve pedestrian safety. 

Francie Stefan, mobility manager for the City of Santa Monica, said cities with extremely high pedestrian traffic can enhance the experience of using city streets and promote safety by designing crosswalks that are both functionally and visually creative. 

In addition to the sunrise and sunset crosswalks at the T-intersection on Ocean Avenue, the city also has 12 pedestrian scrambles, which allow pedestrians to cross in any direction—including diagonally—while traffic is stopped in all directions. The city recently dedicated a scramble at 2nd Street and Arizona Avenue, which showcases orange, yellow, aquamarine, and light blue hands meeting over a cornflower blue “X.”

Stefan said the goal of the scrambles is to relieve the buildup of pedestrian traffic and subsequent slowdown for motorists when the walk signal was given. She said the city installed a network of scrambles, instead of just one, to help motorists and pedestrians get used to the change in traffic pattern.

“If you have a pedestrian scramble as a one-off, it can be kind of confusing,” she said. “When people know that it’s a whole network, they know what to expect. We will be collecting data and using that to compare compliance rates for motorists.”

Research shows that scrambles, also called a “Barnes Dance” after traffic engineer Henry Barnes who promoted the use of them, can reduce volume and traffic conflicts. The design is particularly effective in areas of high pedestrian volume that conflicts with turning vehicles. 

Researchers from the Safe Transportation & Education Center at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies evaluated Oakland, California’s scramble at 8th and Webster streets in Chinatown, a year after it was installed. The city implemented the scramble signal as a pilot in 2002 after a pedestrian was killed at the intersection. 

The study found that the scramble crossing reduced the number of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts by about 50 percent, but it also led to an increase in the number of pedestrians crossing against the signal because of the long wait time for a walk signal. The intersection has a high volume of turning vehicles.

The findings were positive enough that in 2004 the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), awarded $2.2 million in federal funding to transform four intersections in Chinatown by implementing pedestrian scrambles and other safety measures.

The cost to install creative crosswalks can run from $3,000 for minor projects involving stencils that last for a few years to over $65,000 for projects involving thermoplastic paint, which can last for over five years. The best places to site creative crosswalks are intersections where pedestrians will appreciate the artwork.

 “You want to make sure a creative crosswalk has a good presence and is placed at an appropriate location,” said Dongho Chang, city traffic engineer for the City of Seattle. “The crosswalk material should be slip-resistant and visible.”

Chang said another factor for evaluating a potential spot for a creative crosswalk is the condition of the street underneath it.

Chang said Seattle tries to be responsive to a community’s interests to help ensure its desires are considered when the city designs the crosswalk.

“Recently in Seattle’s Central District, which is ethnically diverse but has a historically African-American population, people painted Pan African colors on several crosswalks in the neighborhood,” Chang said.

Rather than paint over the unsanctioned artwork, the City of Seattle developed a program to help the community design, fund and install the crosswalks. The Department of Neighborhoods, a city agency that encourages civic engagement, worked with the community on the decorations. It then provided funding and helped develop designs. This resulted in the installation of permanent Pan African art on the crosswalks and a program that provides the same opportunities for other neighborhoods in the city. 

Playhouse District Association
The Playhouse District Association in Pasadena, California, used stencils
to create three different crosswalk designs: art deco, gingko and rose.
Figuring out what works

For many cities installing creative crosswalks is a learning process. This was the case for Aaron Parazette, a professor of art at the University of Houston. In 2015, Parazette designed a striking set of “color bar” crosswalks for the intersection of Elgin Street and Louisiana Street in Midtown Houston.

“I think people enjoy it,” he said. “They were intrigued by the process when it was happening. It’s red, blue, black, orange and white horizontal stripes. It’s a fun and decorative piece, the sort of thing no one could object to.” 

Parazette said Houston city officials were surprised by the $30,000 cost the artwork requires.  

“It’s hard in a very busy city to close down the street,” he said. “As soon as you remove the cones, people start driving on the art. It was dirty almost instantly. So what you learn is it has to be done relatively quickly and able to stand up to the elements.” 

David Junger, assistant city manager for the City of Decatur, Georgia, said his city also learned about maintenance the hard way.
“About four years ago, we piloted a project to put in midblock crosswalks in our downtown area that looked kind of like red brick. They didn’t hold up like we expected,” Junger said. “We started looking at alternates to replace these. We wanted to do something that was visually more creative and more visible to motorists.” 

Decatur is now working on colorful, art and nature-based designs for eight locations, which Junger said are more durable and also “quite bold, random, and fun.”

In Pasadena, California, the Playhouse District Association conducted an economic development study about the cost and expected benefit of creative crosswalks in 2009 and 2010. Brian Wallace, the association’s executive director, said this helped develop a plan to introduce art in public spaces.

In 2011 the Playhouse District Association unveiled a series of crosswalk stencil art. They went with three designs: art deco, gingko and rose.

“Art Deco is the signature architecture of the district, the gingko is a tree that is common in the district and the rose showcases the history of the Rose Parade,” he said.

Wallace said the district’s success with crosswalks is due to years of careful planning and its choice of artistic yet relatively conservative designs.

“Neither the transportation department nor the police department have cited these as being a problem for pedestrians or motorists,” Wallace said. “Our experience has been highly positive because [we’ve made] an incremental change that has enhanced our environment.”
Federal standards
Creating a nonstandard crosswalk requires the right blend of artistic talent and knowledge of traffic rules and safety principles.

Neil Gaffney, public affairs specialist for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), said individuals who design a crosswalk should be familiar with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD), which specifies

Federal standards 

for road signs, signals and road surface markings.

“Crosswalk designs that are not compliant with the MUTCD are not permitted because they have not been shown to be understood by drivers and pedestrians or enhance pedestrian safety,” Gaffney said. “The installation of art or murals in a crosswalk provides another distraction for drivers who are already confronted with distractions, both inside the vehicle and outside.”

Gaffney said FHWA work with cities interested in crosswalk design to help them to better understand traffic regulations.

“The FHWA works with communities regularly to help refine crosswalk design and accommodate subtle features like color or texture while maintaining the integrity and recognition of the crosswalk itself,” he said.

Catherine Duffy, chair of the American Planning Association’s transportation planning division, has some concerns about creative crosswalks.

“These crosswalks definitely do a lot to alert people to residential neighborhoods and can show the character of individual communities. That said, they haven’t been studied extensively in regard to pedestrian safety and they can be very expensive to maintain,” she said. “Communities can also consider raised crosswalks, which improve the visibility of pedestrians and can help slow traffic.” 

Moving beyond paint

Future creative crosswalks may not require paint or proximity to other alternative intersection designs.

Thomas Deckert, an artist in Oakland, California, came up with an idea for a “Glowing Crosswalk” in 2012. The crosswalk consists of four LED light posts at about waist-level, with two light posts framing each side of the crosswalk to alert motorists and illuminate the crossing for pedestrians.

“The idea is that the lights would illuminate the crosswalk, creating a field of light from the waist down,” he said.

Deckert unveiled a free-standing prototype of the design at the San Francisco Urban Prototyping Festival. He soon got word that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency was interested. But, without funding to continue the project, the design did not move beyond its initial stage. 

Crosswalk innovations that utilize material other than surface paint and stencils will need support from cities, particularly in the form of funding and policies that fast-track experimentation, Deckert said. The incorporation of new hardware and software could result in unique, safer and less costly designs.

“I think there’s always a potential for beauty, art and enchantment in these city landscapes that we share,” he said of crosswalk innovation. “It is a tool we can use as participants and possessors of that landscape. A well-designed crosswalk empowers pedestrians and motorists alike to share a safer, more pleasant interaction with the city.”  

Jessica Zimmer is a freelance writer based in California.