Ahead of an annual LGBTQ festival in Ames, Iowa, members of the City Council decided to liven up a pedestrian crosswalk near the downtown shopping district by painting stripes in colors evoking the gay, nonbinary and transgender pride flags.
“Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that a small town in central Iowa would be saying this: We see you, we hear you, we welcome you,” Reginald Stewart, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Iowa State University, said of the kaleidoscopic markings.
But in early September, about a week after The Ames Tribune covered the cheerful ribbon-cutting ceremony, a letter arrived from the federal government: The motley intersection was a safety concern, it said, and a liability for the city.
The Federal Highway Administration, which sets the rules for the nation’s roadway signage and signals, made a “request” that the crosswalks be removed.
The Ames City Council voted unanimously to ignore the letter.
“Honestly, I just do not think they have any jurisdiction over the roads in the city that we’re paying for with our own tax money,” Mark Lambert, the Ames city attorney, said.
Cities crossing the line
Last year, the number of pedestrian deaths in the United States was the highest in almost three decades, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association study that examined causes such as alcohol use, speeding, unsafe infrastructure and the prevalence of SUVs. It also suggested that the increased use of smartphones may be a factor as well.
As more pedestrians and cyclists share roads in urban areas, local officials have made attempts to involve communities in transportation infrastructure, like crosswalks, because they say it increases the health and well-being of the area.
But in doing so, many have hit roadblocks with the federal government.
In February 2016, St. Louis let its fleur-de-lis and rainbow crosswalks fade away after the federal government asked that they be removed. Washington’s bright dragons and zodiac designs climbing the ladder lines in Chinatown were subject to federal scrutiny. And a rainbow-themed crosswalk in Lexington, Kentucky, was said to create “potential confusion for motorists, pedestrians and other jurisdictions who may see these markings,” according to local news reports.
The government also said Ames’ installation could cause others “to install similar crosswalk treatments in their cities,” according to letters sent by the Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In its letter to Ames, which was shared with The New York Times, the highway administration said that crosswalk art “diminishes the contrast between the white lines and the pavement, potentially decreasing the effectiveness of the crosswalk markings and the safety of pedestrian traffic.”
“The purpose of aesthetic treatments and crosswalk art is to ‘draw the eye’ of pedestrians and drivers,” it continued, “in direct conflict with commanding the attention of drivers and motorists to minimize the risk of collision.”
But urban planning practitioners and advocates say the government’s claims that crosswalk art makes intersections less safe are not rooted in evidence.
Michael Lydon, a founder of the urban design firm Street Plans, has been working with cities and community groups to develop street art projects for almost a decade.
“The thing that gets under my skin, personally,” he said, “is that this response from FHWA is not really grounded in any data.”
“There are hundreds around the country, if not thousands around the world, and I don’t know of any study that has been able to show that they are actually causing any problems,” Lydon said.
“In some instances,” he continued, “communities can find that they’re actually improving safety.”
What do the rules say?
The rules of the road are contained in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, a weighty tome that dictates everything from the red color, octagonal shape and white lettering of stop signs to the configuration of orange cones and barrels in a construction zone.
The intent is to create a uniform and consistent language, like a dictionary for users of public roads.
In the latest edition, which was published in 2009, Section 3B.18 offers guidance about constructing crosswalks. The manual recommends, among other things, using white stripes — usually painted longitudinally in single stripes or in pairs — because the contrast on asphalt, especially when mixed with retro-reflective beads that illuminate in headlights, are most visible to motorists.
“These standard crosswalk designs have been tested and researched to verify that road users understand them and their meaning,” a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said. “Crosswalks should provide for optimal contrast and be readily visible.”
In 2013, the highway administration issued a memorandum affirming an earlier ruling that “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.”
When asked for evidence that colorful pavement markings within a crosswalk have an impact on safety, the agency was unable to provide research specifically studying the effect of rainbow markings.
On Friday, a senior Federal Highway Administration official said the agency valued “the long history of partnerships that have led to new innovations.”
“We are always open to collaborating with state and local jurisdictions that have ideas with potential to improve roadway performance and safety,” the official added.
Where the rub meets the road
“It’s particularly a sensitive issue right now because pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have been going up,” said Jeffrey F. Paniati, executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, who spent more than three decades at the Federal Highway Administration.
As municipalities work to accommodate more pedestrians and cyclists, he said, city officials are forced to make tough decisions to respond to the needs of communities while complying with federal guidelines, which can potentially create additional liability or risk if they are ignored.
“The rub,” Paniati said, is “where do you draw the line?”
“Where does the need for this uniformity and consistency stop, and the allowance for local decision making and creativity start?” he asked. “It’s a bit of a slippery slope.”
How cities — including Seattle — are responding
Now cities are gathering data to show the benefits of more creative crosswalks.
The Seattle Department of Transportation has installed 40 artistic crosswalks, which include rainbow stripes and geometric designs created by local artists, and has started a formal program for communities to request one.
Dongho Chang, the city’s traffic engineer, said his department had been monitoring areas where nontraditional crosswalks were installed. “There were no reported collisions involving pedestrians at the colorful crosswalks during the first year,” he said, though there were pedestrian collisions at nearby traditional crosswalks.
“A lot of the concern is based on subjective nature,” he said of the artfully painted crosswalks. “There isn’t any definitive research or cases.”
In addition to the fewer “collisions and conflicts,” he said, people had responded positively to the vibrant colors and designs.
Chang, who is on the committee that updates the federal manual on roadway signage and markings, said he hoped that Seattle’s research would “spur a dialogue” with the highway administration to think about contexts where such installations were appropriate and could make conditions better.
Meanwhile, in Ames
On Friday, Lambert, the Ames city attorney, said the city had not heard from the Federal Highway Administration.
The Ames Tribune published an editorial last Saturday that said the government was “sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong” and was making “ridiculous claims” that the colors were a distraction and posed a risk.
“We also encourage Ames to continue to do everything it can to support, encourage and celebrate diversity in our community,” it said, “including painting more crosswalks.”