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February 11, 2016updated 20 Jul 2021 2:31pm

Street art is great, but don't try it on crosswalks

By Barbara Speed

Pedestrian crossings – crosswalks – are the latest prey of those eager to brighten up neglected city streets. Last year, CityLab ran a round-up of particulary colourfulcross walks and other edited road markings, all the work of Montreal-based artist Roadwsorth:

Source: Roadsworth’s Facebook page.


Source: Hecho en Casa Festival’s Facebook page.

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Unfortunately, Roadsworth was eventually charged with 59 counts of “mischief” for his artwork. After all, he didn’t have permission: there isn’t much separating what he did from graffiti. 

In St Louis, Missouri, the local government actually painted pretty crosswalks themselves (designs included a rainbow and a fleur-de-lis-covered crosswalk) since 2001. However, the city has since learned that the Federal Highways Associations banned designs like this in 2011.

The reason? As the FHA stated, “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 won’t paint over the crosswalks; but won’t be able to repaint them in their current form once they’ve faded.

Next City reports that painted crosswalks are actually a feature in a number of US cities, though not, presumably, for long. The rule does seem a little unfair – especially becuase research has shown that in real terms, pedestrian safety in the US is roughly the same whether they’re crossing at a marked crosswalk or where there isn’t one at all. Presumably, this could be because pedestrians are naturally more cautious when crossing without a crosswalk, and that caution outweighs the risks. 

The Department for Transport tells me that colourful crosswalks would also be against the law in the UK. All road markings must comply with the sizes and colours decided by the government – in this case, in the Zebra, Puffin and Pelican Crossing Regulations 1997. The legislation specifies that crossings must look like this:

(And before you get any ideas in your head, it also specifies that the stipes must be black and white.)

All this does seem a bit joyless, but it’s worth considering why road markings have such strict style guides in the first place. Drivers are bombarded with huge amounts of information on the road, and it makes sense that any variation in the signals they read could be dangerous, even lethal.

Colours in particularly are used sparsely and for specific purposes on signage and road markings, so an explosion of colour at an upcoming junction could get very confusing. While public art is fun, maybe the boring legislators are right: keep it off the road.

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