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The ridiculously simple way to make streets safer for pedestrians

Intersections are deadly places. More than half of all fatal or injury-causing car collisions occur at or near intersections, according to the Federal Highway Administration. And during the pandemic, injurious or fatal collisions have hit historic highs; in the first nine months of 2021, more than 31,000 people were killed on American roads, a 12% increase from the year before. It was the largest increase since record keeping began in 1975.

A new study from Bloomberg Philanthropies shows that solving part of this public health crisis could come down to a simple, surprising tool. It’s not a new traffic signal or a big piece of security infrastructure: It’s a bucket of paint.

[Photo: Joseph McGann/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

Art projects painted onto streets and intersections significantly improve safety, reducing the rate of crashes involving cars and pedestrians by up to 50% and all crashes by 17%, according to the study.

These asphalt art projects include multi-colored murals and paint jobs on the streets, crosswalks, and asphalt in and around busy intersections. Often bright and hard for drivers to miss, they tend to cause drivers to slow down, be more cautious, and be more attentive to pedestrians.

[Photo: Matt Eich/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

These simple painted interventions have been embraced as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Asphalt Art Initiative, which has issued grants to 41 U.S. cities and three European cities, resulting in 45 street painting projects. This study focused on some of these projects, and its findings provide data to suggest they can make intersections safer.

“What we’re seeing today across the country is there is a pandemic of traffic fatalities, and communities want to see their streets calmed down. They don’t want to see the blood on the streets,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, principal for transportation at Bloomberg Associates, the consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “This is yet another tool in the toolbox.”

[Photo: Sean Carroll/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

Sadik-Khan is the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation who led the pedestrianization of Times Square, starting with a simple paint job on the street and some plastic traffic bollards. “Nobody expected that to work,” she says. But according to an analysis, the project had no adverse effect on travel times, increased pedestrian activity, and even benefited businesses in the area. “Paint and other temporary treatments cost a fraction of concrete and capital work, and they can deliver real results for pennies on the dollar,” she says.

Now, these kinds of low-cost interventions are being implemented across the country, with similar benefits. The study, conducted by Sam Schwartz Consulting, analyzed 22 Bloomberg-funded projects in the United States, comparing crash data from before and after the artworks were introduced, dating back to 2016. Some of these projects were completed for just a few thousand dollars. A few cost just hundreds.

[Photo: Joseph McGann/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

Projects were observed in cities like Pittsburgh, where a large, five-pointed intersection had bold striped crosswalks added and colorful flowers painted over asphalt outside of travel lanes. Another project in Durham, North Carolina filled a four-sided intersection with a large mural of blue orbs. Other cities with interventions included Trenton, Atlanta, and Ft. Lauderdale. More than three-quarters of the projects studied saw reduced traffic crashes after the artworks were installed.

[Photo: Joseph McGann/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

“What we see over and over again is that reclaiming streets gives us this huge canvas for safer street designs,” Sadik-Khan says. “Using vibrant urban artwork which can really stand out and become some of cities’ biggest successes.”

These interventions don’t automatically translate into safety improvements, though. The study found that asphalt art projects in Atlanta and Decatur, Georgia, weren’t correlated with crash reductions, with crash rates increasing 41% and 28% respectively.

[Photo: Sean Carroll/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

But Bloomberg Philanthropies plans to continue the work. They’ll be giving $25,000 grants to as many as 20 European cities to do their own pavement art projects. The application period for these grants is now open and the winning cities will be announced in the fall.

[Photo: Joseph McGann/courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

The study goes into detail on the specifics of each project, including the density of the surrounding neighborhood, the artwork’s placement on the street, and the presence of signals or other conventional traffic control infrastructure. Sadik-Khan says the study offers the kind of early data cities often want before trying something new. With decreased crashes reported in the study, she’s hoping other cities will see the benefit of doing these kinds of projects.

“This information gives mayors and community members and even national policy makers the evidence to show that not only will projects like these do no harm, but they can actually prevent harm from happening in the first place,” she says.