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The Case for Guerrilla Crosswalks

Activists are painting unsanctioned DIY crosswalks at intersections in cities like Seattle and LA. Transportation officials should understand why.


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a freshly painted crosswalk

Exasperated by city inaction, some crosswalk advocates in Seattle and LA have gone rogue.  Photographer: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

On Nov. 14, 2022, a crosswalk appeared at Seattle’s busy intersection of Olive Way and Harvard Avenue. The city’s department of transportation was not happy about it. This new crosswalk was unauthorized; a group of residents of the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood painted it themselves. Two days later, Seattle Department of Transportation workers were at the scene, power-washing the zebra stripes into oblivion.

On social media, Seattleites responded to the crosswalk’s removal with derision. Several noted that Washington state law grants pedestrians the right of way at all marked or unmarked intersections, suggesting that the crosswalk at Olive and Harvard simply reflected existing pedestrian rights (even if drivers didn’t always acknowledge them). But Seattle DOT defended its actions on Twitter: “Improperly painted crosswalks give a false sense of safety which puts pedestrians in danger.”

This was not the first time that Seattle DOT had removed a “guerrilla crosswalk.” In September 2021, residents painted another one at 83rd and Greenwood. SDOT had long planned a crosswalk there, but the pandemic had delayed its installation; that one survived for several months before the city erased it.

“This is infuriating,” Seattle councilmember Andrew Lewis tweeted. “We have the time and money, apparently, to expediently REMOVE a crosswalk, but it takes years to get around to actually painting one. No wonder neighbors took it upon themselves to act.” Lewis made a reasonable point: When motivated, transportation agencies can quickly alter streetscapes. But they often seem to show more urgency removing citizen-built crosswalks than they do installing official ones.

Indeed, that is part of the power of guerrilla crosswalks: Even if they are not long for this world, they demonstrate how needlessly difficult it is to build safer streets in US cities.

Safety Last

Unlike peer nations, the US has endured a sharp increase in road deaths in recent years. Urban traffic fatalities have reflected national trends. Seattle is one of many US cities where street deaths have risen; Portland and Austin set 21st-century records for traffic deaths last year. Those walking are at particular risk, with US pedestrian fatalities hitting a 40-year high in 2021.

Seeking to protect so-called vulnerable road users, many US cities (including Seattle) have adopted the traffic safety framework Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminate crash deaths. Vision Zero has grabbed headlines and launched new city offices, but its impact on fatalities is harder to discern. As I wrote previously in CityLab, public officials’ actions — such as implementing road diets, installing traffic cameras, and building pedestrian infrastructure — have lagged behind their Vision Zero pronouncements.

In Philadelphia, for example, a years-long process to reconfigure a deadly road was tossed at the 11th hour, apparently because a councilmember objected. In Washington, DC, local businesses have opposed new bike lanes on Connecticut Avenue, complaining about a future loss of customers despite numerous studies showing that bike lanes boost, rather than diminish, retail sales. In Seattle, a resident requesting a crosswalk next to a playground was dismissed with a form email.

Even when safety improvements get approved, local officials can show little urgency to implement them. In San Francisco, city staffers recently said that repainting curbs near bus stops to remove parking spots that require dangerous “flag stops” would take seven years, with a public hearing held prior to each removal: “We can’t just paint 1,200 curbs,” San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency planner Sean Kennedy said, the San Francisco Standard reported. “It’s going to be a longer process.”

That drew more than a few eyerolls. “Why have these absurd timelines become so normalized?” asked writer/editor and San Francisco resident Allison Arieff. “We could organize neighborhood teams to do this in a weekend.”

Some exasperated urban residents seem to agree — and they are taking matters into their own hands. In Los Angeles, the activist group Crosswalk Collective LA has been striping intersections in neighborhoods across the city since February.

“Some of us tried repeatedly to request crosswalks,” said a spokesperson for the group, who requested anonymity because of the collective’s rule-bending M.O. “The process takes years, and that’s if it ever gets done.” The group’s website, which includes a downloadable how-to guide, makes its mission clear: “The city doesn’t keep us safe,” it reads, “so we keep us safe.”

Crosswalk Collective has installed “15 to 20” crosswalks throughout the city, the spokesperson said, with members of the public nominating “hundreds and hundreds more.” Members pay for supplies themselves, with donations sometimes offsetting expenses. But now only about half of the organization’s crosswalks remain, according to the spokesperson; the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has removed the rest. In a statement, LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney said that the agency “want[s] to ensure that the City’s limited resources are delivered equitably, to the communities that have the highest safety risks. Unauthorized installations of street treatments are illegal, will be removed, and could result in citations.”

A few such citations have already been issued. The Crosswalk Collective spokesperson said that police issued $250 fines to members of his group caught painting a crosswalk in Koreatown in April 12. (He added that the city’s removal of that freshly painted crosswalk drew public attention that led to a surge in donations and new members.)

Time to Get Tactical

Such acts of unsanctioned “tactical urbanism” are of a kin to many other DIY street interventions, such as pop-up bike lanes. But they are not without risks. Affluent communities could have more residents willing to volunteer time and resources, for example, even though pedestrian deaths are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. “The locations identified by guerrilla crosswalk activists may or may not coincide with where the planners and engineers have identified as highest need,” said Sam Zimbabwe, the former director of Seattle DOT.

But in Los Angeles, the Crosswalk Collective spokesperson said that the group is “always mindful of who has access to safety installations and who doesn’t,” adding that all its crosswalks to date have been sited in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of Central and East Los Angeles.

Zimbabwe also noted the limited benefits of paint on faster roads (which the Federal Highway Administration has documented): “Particularly on multilane arterials, only marking a crosswalk without deploying other tools does not address the ‘multiple threat’ problem, where one driver stops but the driver in another lane does not.“ (The Crosswalk Collective spokesperson agreed, saying that the group rejects proposed locations due to safety concerns “all the time.”)

But in the right setting, unauthorized street infrastructure additions can lead to one of two outcomes — and both are constructive. One possibility is that the city removes it, in which case media attention and resident backlash put pressure on local officials to be more responsive to safety requests. (That coverage may also compel more residents to join street safety groups).

The other option is that city officials take the hint and accept what residents have built. Eight years ago, Seattle transportation planner Dongho Chang won the enduring appreciation of local cyclists when he responded to a pop-up bike lane first by thanking activists for their passion, and then by making the bike lane permanent. Now working with the Washington State Department of Transportation, Chang does not share Seattle DOT’s rigid opposition to guerrilla crosswalks. “It would be good to acknowledge the effort that was done by the residents,” he said. “If there is a way to keep the crosswalk, it would be ideal to try to do that.”

Indeed, the sky is unlikely to fall if city agencies are a bit more open-minded about citizen-installed infrastructure. Consider what happened in the town of New Paltz, New York, when a crosswalk appeared overnight 15 years ago.

Jason Hornyak, a Denver geographer who was an undergrad at SUNY-New Paltz back in 2006, says that he grew frustrated by the daily danger of crossing Plattekill Avenue on his way to campus. So he decided to take action.

One night, “under cover of darkness and with a lot of liquid courage,” Hornyak says that he and a few friends dashed into the intersection of Plattekill Avenue and South Oakwood Terrace and painted their own crosswalk. Hornyak and his co-conspirators thought they had committed a well-intentioned prank. To their surprise, that’s not how others took it. 

“The next morning, we went to look at the crosswalk, and people were using it — cars were actually stopping for pedestrians,” he said. “Everyone treated it as a legitimate crosswalk. We were blown away.” At a community meeting, a resident thanked the town for installing it — prompting considerable confusion, Hornyak says. Ultimately, the city decided the repaint the crosswalk themselves. It remains there today.

Looking back, Hornyak has no regrets.

“I'm reticent to say people should just go out and change the streets any way they see fit,” he said. “But our current way of doing things — where we first have to collect enough data points to decide if a street should be revised — isn’t working. Because those data points tend to be people dying or getting hurt. If we’re waiting for that, we’re clearly doing something wrong with our streets.”

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published December 1, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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