Walking On Painted Keys: Creative Crosswalks Meet Government Resistance Intersection art makes streets more inviting and can remind motorists to respect crosswalks and bike lanes. But the federal government says the designs can also be distracting.

Walking On Painted Keys: Creative Crosswalks Meet Government Resistance

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Traffic intersections have had a pretty standard look in America for decades; you know, the blank square of pavement, the white lines for crosswalks - that's about it. Now there is a push for intersection creativity, and also some red and yellow lights. Brett Dahlberg of our member station WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., has more.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: I'm standing on the newest piece of public art in Rochester, smack in the middle of Main Street - literally, in the middle of the street, right outside the Eastman School of Music. The crosswalk here has been repainted to look like a piano, and people are loving it. Arian Horbovetz has been working nearby.

ARIAN HORBOVETZ: This is incredible. On all four sides, piano keys instead of your typical kind of crosswalk slashes here. And right - actually, just below our feet here, the Rochester flower logo in the middle of our intersection. It's pretty cool. It's pretty awesome.

DAHLBERG: Everyone I talked to crossing the street has something positive to say about the art.

ANGELA SIMMONS: Oh, the piano crosswalk? It's great. Very festive.

LEO KNAUF: We love it. It's just cool.

DAHLBERG: That's Angela Simmons and Leo Knauf, and they both say they like the intersection for its new looks. But there's more here than meets the eye. Increasingly, urban designers and transportation planners say there are actually health benefits to putting color on the ground. Just off Main Street, in Rochester's Beechwood neighborhood, there's another colorful intersection. The sidewalks here are green. The crosswalks are blue. And there's a big red and yellow sun that covers the whole street. The art has been here a little over a year.

JOSEPH HUTCHINGS: People slow - cars slowed down. Ain't nobody speeding out right here no more.

DAHLBERG: Joseph Hutchings has lived around here for more than a decade. He says the intersection art makes a big difference for families.

HUTCHINGS: It's a lot of kids that be out here in his neighborhood, you know what I'm saying? People feel safer with stuff like this, you know what I'm saying? Me, I know I do.

DAHLBERG: Mike Bulger works at the Rochester nonprofit that planned the intersection redesign. He says that's part of the aim. One of the streets that runs through here is really straight and wide. In some places, it looks more like a highway than a neighborhood, and Bulger says that encourages people to speed.

MIKE BULGER: So you're driving up that street, and you can lay on the gas. You got plenty of room around you. But a few blocks ahead, you see some color. You start to realize that this isn't just a highway - right? - through a residential neighborhood; this is something more.

DAHLBERG: Bulger says slowing down traffic has ripple effects. It makes the space inviting. It's somewhere people want to be instead of just get through. A growing number of urban planners and researchers say that brings people outside. It reduces crime and increases the number of people getting around without cars.

But the federal government has some really exacting guidance for what sorts of markings are appropriate for a road. Your crosswalk has to have transverse white lines. They've got to be spaced just right and painted with just the right type of reflective paint. The city of Buffalo scrapped plans for a rainbow crosswalk for Pride month a few years ago after the Federal Highway Administration said it wouldn't meet the standards. The city of Rochester says its artistic intersections have threaded the needle between being creative and following the rules. And that's good news for people-watchers. I'm back at Main Street with Arian Horbovetz.

HORBOVETZ: There are three people right here walking on this crosswalk that's painted like piano keys, and they're walking on it, trying to do, like, the movie, "Big." You know where they're playing the keyboard with their feet?

DAHLBERG: There are plans in the works for more colorful crosswalks in the city, especially outside schools.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Rochester, N.Y.


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