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Fighting Traffic One Paint Brush at a Time

Frustrated by government inaction, citizens in cities across the country are taking traffic problems into their own hands. But the cities aren't always thankful.

A merchant paints a crosswalk himself in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden.
A merchant paints a crosswalk himself in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden.
Jed Weeks/Baltimore Brew
Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, a gentrified area north of downtown, is bifurcated by 36th Street. “The Avenue,” as it’s known among locals, is strung with coffee shops, boutiques and funky restaurants. It’s a walkable area with lots of foot traffic. So when the city transportation department in 2012 repaved a main intersection on The Avenue—and then failed to repaint the crosswalk for eight months—it became a traffic problem. Cars sped through the intersection, and pedestrian safety became a concern.

Frustrated by the city’s inaction, a few Hampden merchants decided to paint the crosswalk themselves in the middle of the night. One of those merchants, an art gallery owner named Deborah Patterson, called the city the next morning to confess. “I told them I did it because it was dangerous,” Patterson says. “I had almost hit somebody recently coming home one night. I had to do something.”

Guerrilla traffic-calming efforts like Patterson’s have become a growing issue in Baltimore and in urban areas across the country, as fed-up residents attempt to slow motorists with do-it-yourself measures. (This past November, in another Baltimore neighborhood, an artist installed a steel sculpture in the middle of a traffic circle to draw drivers’ attention to the traffic pattern.) Most of the time, cities will remove or paint over these efforts by self-appointed civil engineers. They’re illegal, and officials say they pose liability issues. A few cities, including Muncie, Ind., in 2008 and Vallejo, Calif., last year, have arrested people who painted crosswalks without permission.

But there is another approach, say people like Mike Lydon, an urban planner with the Street Plans Collaborative and the co-author of a handbook called Tactical Urbanism. Lydon says cities should “look at the action of citizens as a civic act, as care and interest in their neighborhood.” Instead of punishing proactive members of the community, he says, “cities should use their resources to help scale those efforts up and make them permanent.”

Some cities have experimented with that idea. Last year, after residents in New Haven, Conn., painted their own crosswalks at one heavily trafficked intersection, the city did scrub the zebra-striped paint job. But it spurred officials to renovate the crossing with bulbouts, pedestrian-activated lights and new brick-style crosswalks. And in Hampden, news coverage of the guerrilla crosswalk prompted Baltimore officials to install two stop signs and three crosswalks. “It really did light a fire,” Patterson says. “You know, they don’t want to be embarrassed.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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