As Atlanta reels and ruminates over the Braves-tomahawks imbroglio, another lower key story recently came across the wire in the traffic world. With Pride Weekend on the horizon, the City of Atlanta made a point last week to tell its residents that the rainbow crosswalk at the Midtown Piedmont Ave. at 10th St. intersection would remain. But why would there be any question about that? Apparently, the Federal Highway Administration has deemed these crosswalk paint schemes below their safety standards.
Recently, the city of Ames, Iowa received a letter from the FHWA asking they remove their rainbow crosswalks because the colorful markings did not meet government safety standards. FHWA says that crosswalks can only use white paint.
“Crosswalk art has a potential to compromise pedestrian and motorist safety by interfering with, detracting from, or obscuring official traffic control devices. The art can also encourage road users, especially bicycles and pedestrians, to directly participate in the design, loiter in the street, or give reason to not vacate the street in an expedient or predictable manner,” FHWA wrote in a letter to an Ames official.
The letter continued: “”It also creates confusion for motorists, pedestrians, and other jurisdictions who may see these markings and install similar crosswalk treatments in their cities. Allowing a non-compliant pavement marking to remain in place presents a liability concern for the City of Ames in the event of a pedestrian/vehicle or vehicle/vehicle collision.”
While Atlanta hasn’t gotten a request yet, other cities besides Ames have. Ames declined to change the crosswalks back to their normal white gridding. When asked about it, the City of Atlanta gave a clear response.
“While we have received no such request, Atlanta’s rainbow crosswalk is located on city-owned streets,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ spokesman Michael Smith told the AJC. “Much like glitter, the crosswalk is here to stay indefinitely. The Bottoms Administration wishes Atlanta a safe and fabulous Pride.”
The assertions by the feds that these crosswalks are dangerous is questionable at best. First, the letter to Ames said that the rainbow colors interfere with a traffic control device. While technically true, the rainbow patterns do not hurt the functionality of a crosswalk; people can still walk across on them.
The FHWA also stated that the rainbow crosswalks encourage people to loiter around the design and put themselves in danger. While these crosswalks draw attention, there are very few, if any, people who are actually taking dangerous steps to snap pictures or observe the designs. Tourism liability is a weak argument to force the designs to change.
FHWA’s most erroneous claim is that the designs create confusion for those using them. If anything, changing a crosswalk design to something more brilliant and familiar draws more attention to there even being a crosswalk in the first place. Doesn’t the government want people aware of the crosswalk? White has a great contrast to pavement, but so do bright rainbow colors. People are mighty aware of where to cross the street at Piedmont and 10th.
In defense of the federal government, this does create a slippery slope. How much should cities change standard road and sign designs to fit themes? That is a good question. But it is one that local jurisdictions should answer. That holds especially true if the street is locally maintained and not a U.S. highway. The public has much more of a say in how policy is made on granular issues like these when we go to city council meetings and petition our leaders. A pencil-pushing bureaucrat a thousand miles away shouldn’t affect policy of this kind on this level. And citizens’ powers against federal bureaucrats is far less than it is against city governments.
Ames decided to keep its crosswalks and likely will not face recourse. Atlanta has preemptively done the same. Hopefully these and other cities like them will keep this fun aesthetic under control and not try to make each crosswalk become a statement or novelty. There are certainly cultural and practical benefits to repainting crosswalks, but changing too many of them is too costly. Rainbow crosswalks are a good thing of which there certainly can be too much. But forbidding them for being unsafe is laughable — and probably makes people want to jaywalk even more.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxmg.com .