Walking On Painted Keys: Creative Crosswalks Meet Government Resistance

Jul 16, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 1:21 pm

One of the newest pieces of public art in Rochester, N.Y., is right in the middle of Main Street. Or, more accurately, it's on the street.

Outside the Eastman School of Music, a group of volunteers repainted the crosswalk to look like three-dimensional piano keys in advance the international jazz festival that happens here each year.

People walking by have been commenting on the artwork, but there's more here than meets the eye.

Intersections have had a pretty standard look in the United States for decades. The blank square of pavement, the white lines of crosswalks. Increasingly, urban designers and transportation planners say colorful crosswalks and engaging sidewalks lead to safer intersections, stronger neighborhoods and better public health. But the growing push for intersection creativity is meeting some resistance from the federal government.

And with pedestrian deaths in the U.S. at a 30-year high, those planners say, finding new ways to protect people from cars is becoming more urgent.

Just off Main Street, in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood, there's another colorful intersection. The sidewalks here are green, the crosswalks are blue, and there's a big, red and yellow sun that covers the whole street. The art has been here a little over a year.

"Cars slowed down," says Joseph Hutchings, who has lived in the area for more than a decade. "Ain't nobody speeding up right here no more," he says. "People feel safer."

Children bike across this colorful intersection.
Courtesy of Common Ground Health

Hutchings says the intersection art makes a big difference for families. He says there are more children outside playing and more adults walking places or riding bikes.

Mike Bulger is a program coordinator at Common Ground Health, the Rochester nonprofit that planned the intersection redesign. He says that's exactly what the art is intended to do.

"It's a nudge toward the healthier option and the safer behavior," Bulger says.

One of the streets that runs through the intersection is an old streetcar route. It's a straight, wide road. "You can lay on the gas. You got plenty of room around you," Bulger says. But the eye-catching art is a reminder that "this isn't just a highway."

Bulger says slowing down traffic has ripple effects. It makes the space inviting. It's somewhere people want to be, instead of just get through. A growing number of urban planners and researchers, from the Federal Highway Administration, to AARP, to the Governors Highway Safety Association say that brings people outside, reducing crime and increasing the number of people getting around without cars.

When infrastructure encourages active transit, like walking or bicycling, the result is public health gains, says Ruth Steiner, who directs the Center for Health and the Built Environment at the University of Florida.

"The way an urban area is constructed speaks volumes about how people will navigate it," Steiner says.

"This is not an entirely new idea, using color to indicate pedestrian-friendly spaces," she says, "but I would say I'm encountering it more often now."

Indeed, cities across the country have embraced the idea.

Despite the Federal Highway Administration's finding that aesthetically pleasing intersections bring a range of benefits, the agency has taken issue with several examples.

Officials in St. Louis decided in 2016 to let the color in artistic intersections fade away after the highway administration said they could distract drivers.

A year later, the agency asked officials in Lexington, Ky., to remove a rainbow crosswalk downtown because it created "potential confusion for motorists" and danger for pedestrians.

In general, the agency says, "crosswalk art is actually contrary to the goal of increased safety and most likely could be a contributing factor to a false sense of security for both motorists and pedestrians."

The city of Rochester says its artistic intersections have threaded the needle between being creative and following the rules.

"It is complicated," says Shawn Dunwoody, who oversaw the painting of the piano crosswalk. "You've got to find that balance."

Copyright 2019 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Traffic intersections have had a pretty standard look in America for decades; you know, the blank square of pavement, the white lines for crosswalks - that's about it. Now there is a push for intersection creativity, and also some red and yellow lights. Brett Dahlberg of our member station WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., has more.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: I'm standing on the newest piece of public art in Rochester, smack in the middle of Main Street - literally, in the middle of the street, right outside the Eastman School of Music. The crosswalk here has been repainted to look like a piano, and people are loving it. Arian Horbovetz has been working nearby.

ARIAN HORBOVETZ: This is incredible. On all four sides, piano keys instead of your typical kind of crosswalk slashes here. And right - actually, just below our feet here, the Rochester flower logo in the middle of our intersection. It's pretty cool. It's pretty awesome.

DAHLBERG: Everyone I talked to crossing the street has something positive to say about the art.

ANGELA SIMMONS: Oh, the piano crosswalk? It's great. Very festive.

LEO KNAUF: We love it. It's just cool.

DAHLBERG: That's Angela Simmons and Leo Knauf, and they both say they like the intersection for its new looks. But there's more here than meets the eye. Increasingly, urban designers and transportation planners say there are actually health benefits to putting color on the ground. Just off Main Street, in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood, there's another colorful intersection. The sidewalks here are green. The crosswalks are blue. And there's a big red and yellow sun that covers the whole street. The art has been here a little over a year.

JOSEPH HUTCHINGS: People slow - cars slowed down. Ain't nobody speeding out right here no more.

DAHLBERG: Joseph Hutchings has lived around here for more than a decade. He says the intersection art makes a big difference for families.

HUTCHINGS: It's a lot of kids that be out here in his neighborhood, you know what I'm saying? People feel safer with stuff like this, you know what I'm saying? Me, I know I do.

DAHLBERG: Mike Bulger works at the Rochester nonprofit that planned the intersection redesign. He says that's part of the aim. One of the streets that runs through here is really straight and wide. In some places, it looks more like a highway than a neighborhood, and Bulger says that encourages people to speed.

MIKE BULGER: So you're driving up that street, and you can lay on the gas. You got plenty of room around you. But a few blocks ahead, you see some color. You start to realize that this isn't just a highway - right? - through a residential neighborhood; this is something more.

DAHLBERG: Bulger says slowing down traffic has ripple effects. It makes the space inviting. It's somewhere people want to be instead of just get through. A growing number of urban planners and researchers say that brings people outside. It reduces crime and increases the number of people getting around without cars.

But the federal government has some really exacting guidance for what sorts of markings are appropriate for a road. Your crosswalk has to have transverse white lines. They've got to be spaced just right and painted with just the right type of reflective paint. The city of Buffalo scrapped plans for a rainbow crosswalk for Pride month a few years ago after the Federal Highway Administration said it wouldn't meet the standards. The city of Rochester says its artistic intersections have threaded the needle between being creative and following the rules. And that's good news for people-watchers. I'm back at Main Street with Arian Horbovetz.

HORBOVETZ: There are three people right here walking on this crosswalk that's painted like piano keys, and they're walking on it, trying to do, like, the movie, "Big." You know where they're playing the keyboard with their feet?

DAHLBERG: There are plans in the works for more colorful crosswalks in the city, especially outside schools.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Rochester, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACQUES LEGRAND'S "HEART AND SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.