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Get Real — Colorful Crosswalks Aren’t Endangering Pedestrians

2:29 PM PST on February 10, 2016

Volunteers in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis painting a crosswalk. Is this really what endangers pedestrians in St. Louis? Photo: RallySTL.org
Volunteers in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis painting a crosswalk. The city says this creates unsafe conditions. Photo: RallySTL.org
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In the summer of 2014, residents of Tower Grove in St. Louis painted crosswalks with patterns like a fleur-de-lis to add some neighborhood character. Now city officials say the crosswalks should fade away, citing safety concerns.

The order comes from new bike and pedestrian coordinator Jamie Wilson, who cites a 2011 recommendation from the Federal Highway Administration. Wilson told The Post Dispatch he has "an ultra conservative approach when it comes to safety," and "while he doesn't believe someone's going to trip and fall" over a colorful crosswalk, "we want to be consistent with the memo the feds put out."

St. Louis residents in a handful of neighborhoods had raised funds and spearheaded efforts to create crosswalks that added to neighborhood identity. For example, the crosswalk pictured above, in the Tower Grove neighborhood, contains the "fleur-de-lis" that symbolizes the city of St. Louis on its flag.

“People were excited about the project," Dana Gray of the Tower Grove Community Development Corporation, which helped facilitate the crosswalk painting, told the Post Dispatch. "We had lots of volunteers come out to participate, and they felt like it was drawing attention to the neighborhood.”

Taking a close look at the memo Wilson described, FHWA doesn't say colorful crosswalks are off limits. It does however warn that they can "reduce" the visual "contrast" between the white crosswalk lines and the street, unless painted with "subdued colors."

Baltimore's zipper crosswalk, via Elliot Plack/Flickr
Baltimore's zipper crosswalk, via Elliot Plack/Flickr
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Conor Semler, a planning consultant with the Boston-based firm Kittelson & Associates, said most cities he works with have interpreted the FHWA memo much differently. Cities like Baltimore -- famous for its eye-catching zipper crosswalk -- and Seattle have basically determined "as long as the white transverse lines are clear, you can do almost anything inside that," he said.

Semler says there's no research that indicates painted crosswalks are more or less safe then regular crosswalks.

"The more we think about streets as places for communities, the more communities embrace them, such as through public art, the better off we are," said Semler. "Activities like these communicate a message to drivers that they need to pay attention, which calms traffic and improves safety."

If St. Louis wants to improve pedestrian safety, he said, it should focus on reining in speeding and red-light running.

But St. Louis officials' "ultra conservative" approach to safety doesn't seem to carry over to some of the more pressing risks facing pedestrians. Street safety advocates, for example, have been fighting to get the city to challenge the state and take action to reduce speeding on Gravois Avenue, a key commercial corridor where dangerous vehicle speeds are the norm. Their protests have so far fallen on deaf ears.

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