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The Federal Highway Administration Says Stop to Crosswalk Art

Street art will no longer color crosswalks in St. Louis, Missouri

A rainbow-colored crosswalk in St. Louis, Missouri. (Paul Sableman via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

It’s not often that you hear a crosswalk called colorful, but for years artists have made street corners and crosswalks in St. Louis, Missouri just that. Throughout the city, crosswalks have been covered in everything from fleur-de-lis to rainbow stripes, giving neighborhoods their own sense of identity. Now, city officials have banned artists from making new crosswalk art and are letting many of the pieces that have brightened up its crosswalks fade away.

While many proponents argue that the colorful crosswalk art brings a liveliness and sense of community to streets across the country, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has actually frowned on crosswalk art for years. According to federal regulations passed in 2009, crosswalks are not supposed to be decorated with any colors aside from the standard white lines that mark out pedestrian pathways. Few were aware of this particular rule until 2011, when city officials from Buffalo, New York, reached out to the FHWA for approval on a crosswalk art initiative. To their surprise, they then received a memo putting a halt to the project on account of the artworks being distracting, Sarah Cascone writes for artnet News.

“The bright colors and bold pattern of the proposed Buffalo treatment, and any other such treatment that features bright colors and/or distinctive patterns, would clearly degrade the contrast between the white transverse crosswalk lines and the roadway pavement, and therefore should not be used,” FHWA representative Hari Kalla wrote at the time.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for some street artists), the memo didn’t come to the attention of many government officials, meaning that in some cities like St. Louis, San Francisco, and Baltimore, artists continued to decorate street crossings long after the FHWA came down on the issue. It wasn’t until November that St. Louis' bike and pedestrian coordinator Jamie Wilson found out about the rule during a webinar with transportation officials from around the country, Kristen Taketa reports for the St. Louis Dispatch. While Wilson says he has no evidence that the colorful crosswalks have caused any problems, he’s sticking with the FHWA’s ruling and banning artists from making new crosswalk art.

“I don’t honestly believe someone’s going to trip over a fleur-de-lis crosswalk, but at the same time we want to be consistent with the memo the feds put out,” Wilson tells Taketa. “It’s probably an ultra-conservative approach when it comes to safety, which is fine.”

While St. Louis won’t spend any money getting rid of its existing crosswalk artunless the city gets reports that the artworks are actually dangerousany future proposals to decorate the city’s crosswalks will have to meet federal guidelines, Taketa reports. This means that only patterns  made with “natural” colors that don’t distract from the crosswalks’ white lines will be approved. Despite generally good public reception of the art projects, the colorful city-sanctioned designs will be left to fade away.

“I do think that, aesthetically, they’re nice and exciting. After we painted them, it was one of the most positive reactions with any public art project that we’ve ever done with the neighborhood,” Grove Community Improvement District administrator Matt Green tells Taketa. “But obviously, safety is the most important thing.”

Though this might be the end of city-sanctioned crosswalk art, only time will tell whether the city's street artists will heed the FHWA's ruling.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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