Crossing lines: Art & traffic safety in Montreal

A city worker puts the finishing touches on a crosswalk painted in a 3-dimensional style for a pilot project in the Montreal borough of Outremont on 10 July 2018. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

 

by Graham Larkin

On Monday I’ll be talking on CBC Radio about a crosswalk in Montreal’s Outremont that looks like it’s levitating above the surface of the street.

Since you need a visual to really grasp the concept, I’m writing this post largely as a way to show listeners what we’re talking about. It begins with examples of existing Fake 3D crosswalks, and explains why this particular intervention is probably a bad idea. But not all such stunt work should be dismissed as frivolous. I close with a nod to Montreal’s decades-long tradition of urban critique that often involves paint.

*  *  *

But first, the news of the day … such as it is.

When the CBC first approached me about the Outremont story I thought to myself: “But it’s not even news!” The Fake 3D Crosswalk meme went viral years ago, with this photo of two merry pranksters on a street that turns out to be somewhere in Kyrgyzstan, according to this Reddit post of March 2014.

It’s a powerful image, not least because of the approximate alignment of the fake shadows with the shadows cast by the boys and the paint cans.

Here, from recent years, are some other examples of levitating crosswalks from around the world. Many announce themselves with the grabby headline: “[insert country here]’s First 3D Crosswalk!”

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Those photos allow you to grasp the basic Fake 3D Crosswalk concept.  By virtue of an anamorphic one-point perspective, the levitating-blocks effect should lock in at the right viewer height and distance. While it’s hard to gauge the real-life efficacy of the illusion from a stable, monocular, and invariably optimized point of view, it seems like most of these illusions could  work briefly from the driver’s perspective, if you’re coming at it from the right direction. I suspect they work a lot better in photographs than in real life.

CBC notes that the proposed Outremont crosswalk has a $3,000 price tag, which is up to 15 times the cost of a regular crosswalk. That fact alone should give us pause, but there are plenty more reasons to be skeptical of the initiative, including maintenance cost, all-conditions visibility, and the basic question of whether they will actually slow motor vehicles. The CBC article quotes Westmount active mobility advocate Daniel Lambert as saying that serious protection entails “more than these kinds of cosmetic, gimmicky things.” He sensibly proposes a zebra crossing with on-demand flashing beacons as a proven measure for protecting vulnerable road users.

A good rule of thumb for any safe infrastructure is to emulate the systems used in in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, which have very high proportions of cyclists and pedestrians, yet half our rates of road violence. In those countries none of the street designers are in the business of fooling anyone. On the contrary, infrastructure for a wide range of mobility modes is designed with maximum legibility. In the Netherlands, for instance, every element of the street surface—the colour, the texture, the grade, the shape—makes it clear who goes where and when. And there’s minimal signage or other distraction. So people of all ages and abilities can easily stay in their designated spaces, and really focus on each other.

Pedestrian crossings in those leading countries—and in some North American cities, if one looks at recent progress in New York—are made safer by features like crossing distances shortened by bump-outs and pedestrian islands; on-demand flashing beacons that can be strung on wires (as Lambert suggests) or stuck on posts on mid-street islands; advance signals for active users at all busy intersections; and traffic-calming grade changes including speed bumps and pedestrian tables. When applied in combination with safe speed limits, these features make streets feel less like highways and more like places for people.

All cities would do well to invest in these proven safe systems.

*  *  *

While it is not advisable to spend the traffic safety budget on fooling drivers with optical illusions, there can be real merit in painted interventions that make our streets less highway-like. Consider these two crossing designs for Dunedin City Council, New Zealand by Melbourne-based sidewalk artist Jenny McCracken.

McCracken’s art falls squarely into the “make walking fun” category—part of what urban designer Brent Toderian calls the City of Smiles—that includes John Cleese Silly Walks themed signage and murals in Norway and the Netherlands.

Returning to the meaner streets of Montreal, let’s have a look at the interventions of notorious street artist Peter ‘Roadsworth’ Gibson. As noted here,

Roadsworth began painting the streets of Montréal in the fall of 2001. Initially motivated by a desire for more bike paths in the city and a questioning of “car culture” in general, he continued to develop a language around street markings and other elements of the urban landscape using a primarily stencil based technique.

In the fall of 2004, Roadsworth was arrested for his nocturnal activities and charged with 53 counts of mischief. Despite the threat of heavy fines and a criminal record he received a relatively lenient sentence which he attributes in part to the public support he received subsequent to his arrest. Since that time, Roadsworth has received various commissions for his work and continues to be active in both visual art and music.

Here’s a sampling of Roadsworth’s  pedestrian crossings, including many designs from his rogue years:

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For more on Roadsworth’s street painting, which was largely a reaction to the chilling of free expression in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, see this trailer to Alan Kohl’s NFB documentary Roadsworth: Crossing the Line.

While not all scofflaw street painting falls into the category of tactical urbanism (broadly, “short-term action for long-term change“) Roadsworth’s unsanctioned hacking and humanizing of a car-centric traffic management lexicon seems to fit the bill. His persistent reclamation of street space for free expression is in the spirit of the famed Monde à Bicyclette activists of the 1970s. Their wildly popular die-ins, lane-paintings and other stunts—quite as impressive as similar demonstrations in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and San Francisco—raised awareness about cycling safety and created the pressure that made Montreal into North America’s premier cycling city.

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The radically democratic direct action of Bob Silverman, Chaire Morisette and Roadsworth gets people out onto the streets; it makes them more aware of their environment; and it allows them to see their city as a place that can be can be transformed by citizens demanding a safer, cleaner and more equitable world.

This tradition of refashioning our streets continues in the recent surge in tactical urbanism. Whether sanctioned or not, TU interventions generally involve some combination of paint and physical barriers.

Scroll down for some examples to explore and share.  😉

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 LISTEN to a critique of Fake 3D Crosswalks:

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