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Art on crosswalks makes streets safer, panel says

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When Chris Visions started painting a ground-level mural in Richmond, he had no idea that his street art might help save lives.

Since the completion of the painted crosswalks highlighting the Black culture and heritage of the Jackson Ward neighborhood in September, intersections have become safer for pedestrians and motorists, with 8 fewer incidents of cars braking quickly to avoid pedestrians and other close calls incidents, the drop data shows, more than 56%.

The overall changes are fairly small, but still significant in the community, and are part of a larger study in various cities that showed far fewer accidents at art intersections than last year.

While the original purpose of the asphalt painting was to celebrate Jackson Ward’s 150th anniversary, it had an unexpected benefit: The mural encouraged pedestrians and motorists to “slow down and think about safety,” said 37-year-old local resident Visions, a cartoonist and muralist Family.

The mural, created by a group of art students at a local nonprofit arts organization, is one of three new crosswalk art projects in Richmond as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Asphalt Art Initiative. Since 2019, the nonprofit has funded 42 street murals in 41 cities across the country for up to $25,000.

As part of the project, Bloomberg Philanthropies partnered with consulting firm Sam Schwartz Engineering to explore the impact of street art on safety. The results of the study, published in April, showed a drop in the number of areas that collided with artworks.

The study examined the accident history of 17 asphalt arts sites across the country with at least two years of accident data. It found that there were 83 fewer accidents at the intersections analyzed – a reduction of more than 50 percent compared to the data before the crosswalk was painted.

Video clips from five recently installed art websites across the country were also used to gather information in the study. After installation, drivers let pedestrians increase by 27 percent, while pedestrian crossings with retrograde signals decreased by 38 percent.

Crosswalk art “can improve motorist behavior, and it can protect the most vulnerable people on the road,” said Janet Sadiq-Khan, director of Bloomberg and former New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner.

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According to Bloomberg Philanthropies, street art is associated with slower vehicle speeds, which reduces the risk of potential conflicts and crashes. At one intersection in Kansas City, for example, the average speed dropped to less than 14 mph from about 25 mph before the mural was placed.

The study aimed to determine whether brightly coloured artwork could distract drivers, and found that, in fact, floor murals increased crosswalk visibility, making motorists more cautious and alert.

“Not only do these items not cause harm, they actually prevent harm from happening in the first place,” explains Sadik-Khan, adding that beyond research, there is limited information on the safety impacts of street art. “These data show that safer, sustainable streets don’t have to cost millions.”

Last year, U.S. road fatalities soared more than 10 percent from the previous year, the highest death toll in 16 years. Last year, 42,915 people died on the road.

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Sadik-Khan said she hopes the study, while small, will help policymakers understand the benefits of crosswalk art, especially as the Federal Highway Administration updates its manual on uniform traffic control devices for the first time in more than a decade.

She also said she hopes the research will inspire local communities to come together and paint the streets. Bloomberg Philanthropies has released a free Asphalt Art Guide full of tips and tricks for a successful road redesign.

“That’s what the Asphalt Art Project is all about; turning streets into canvases and collecting concrete data,” she said.

Mike Flynn, head of transportation and planning and national director for Sam Schwartz, said with the number of deaths on the road increasing, finding solutions was more important than ever.

“We need to try whatever works,” said Flynn, who is involved in the Asphalt Art Safety Study.

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“The fact that the overall finding is so positive is eye-opening,” Flynn said, adding that more research is still needed to better understand the effects of asphalt art. “This could be a very important safety tool.”

Plus, he said, there are other advantages to making street murals that safety studies haven’t measured.

“It provides other benefits, such as community building and a venue for local artists,” Flynn said.

Norfolk-based painter and muralist Mensah Bey was delighted with the opportunity to design an asphalt art project on Bland Street in the Norview community. The 100-inch mural is painted in bright shades of blue and red, as well as symbols of West African unity, abundance, and unity.

“I wanted it to reflect the culture of the community and inspire them,” said Bey, 33, adding that he worked on the project at the height of the pandemic and hoped it would help revive residents and small businesses.

As Norfolk City’s artist-in-residence, Jason Akira Somma oversaw the project, which includes two other murals in the city. All three were placed in a police patrol area with the aim of strengthening the relationship between residents and law enforcement.

Community members painted the mural along with the police. The three murals are designed to attract local residents and make the area more lively and welcoming. The painting process brings the community together, and the finished work adds color and brightness to otherwise drab city streets.

“It creates a sense of trust in the community,” Akira Somma said, adding that he also believes the installations will help curb crime in the area. “Community engagement has proven to be very effective in reducing crime.”

Given the success of the first two grant rounds, Bloomberg Philanthropies is expanding the program to European cities with populations of more than 100,000.

“Every city is desperate for these kinds of projects,” Sadiq Khan said, adding that many of the murals end up as unique landmarks that boost community pride. “It’s exciting to see the demand.”

“It’s not just about painting roads,” she continued. “Streets are really the ultimate galleries. They’re places where art and life come alive.”

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