13 Jun 2013

Legend of the Crosswalk Bandits

bottom-up community development, Front Page, neighborhoods, tacoma, Thoughts No Comments

Call ‘em “rogue” or “vigilante” or “guerrilla” – whatever label you choose, unofficial crosswalks have made an appearance at a handful of Tacoma intersections the last few weeks. For the uninitiated, here’s a summary of events to get you up to speed:

  • - Mid May a hand-painted crosswalk appeared on part of the intersection at 6th and St Helens (pictured above).
  • - The City responded by grinding it off, stating the crosswalk didn’t meet ADA regulations (one of the ends of the crosswalk attached to an older island with no egress, as I understand it)
  • - The City met with a group of stakeholders that have been doing great work in the intersection (Love Tacoma Lane, Goddess of Commerce statue, etc.) and gave some options to help the intersection improve (specifically they addressed the old fence that lines the vacant lot on the East side of the intersection – which is what Love Tacoma Lane was drawing attention to).
  • - Last week at least 4 more hand painted crosswalks (some say as many as 6!) appeared throughout Downtown and into Stadium.
  • - Monday the News Tribune quoted the City as saying they will be pursuing legal action against the crosswalk painters. The Tribune wrote an Op-Ed today saying that was a misguided idea and basically Facebook and the internet are agreeing, it seems. Also, word on the street is that the City called in forensics to investigate the scene. They’re analyzing paint chips and stuff.

My initial thought on the first crosswalk was that it was awesome. But I also understood where the city was coming from. I thought the city did a good thing to reach out to the group involved in the intersection and at least try to proactively address concerns there. And when the new crosswalks appeared I thought, “Oh! I love the heart behind it but that may be pushing it too far.”

Then I started seeing people’s reactions online and hearing them in person. I walked past the crosswalks. I used them. And I was unexpectedly encouraged. The crosswalks communicated a lawful and missing truth: the city and its neighborhoods are meant to be walked. (Or at least the older neighborhoods were. The post-WW2 ones could’ve been planned with that intent, but that’s another story.)

Unfortunately American car-culture has had a few generations to lodge itself deep inside our collective psyche. We’ve forgotten the satisfaction of fresh air, using our legs, and bumping into people on the way to get dinner. And our streets are thirsty for participation. They’re waiting for bustle and bumble. If streets are a neighborhood’s arteries, people walking them are the blood that brings the community to life.

Actions like those of the Crosswalk Bandits help interrupt our ingrained patterns that lead us unquestionably into our cars – even when we’re just grabbing a few groceries three blocks away. At least for the thousands of people who live and work Downtown, the problem isn’t being able to walk, it’s remembering to. And the crosswalks, at least for me, helped tacitly put a message of “ya, walking is good – you should do it!” into the air.

Photo Credit: Derrick Rhayn

Photo Credit: Derrick Rhayn

There were a lot of comments I heard that encouraged me that the Bandits were onto something, but this photo really stuck out for me. Though our state law says that any intersection is a crosswalk, regardless if it’s painted or not, I don’t recall ever seeing a car stop for pedestrians at this intersection. I especially don’t remember multiple pedestrians lined up on both sides, ready to cross.

And 1, Bandits.

To be fair, I understand how frustrating it may be to be a manager in the City and feel like vigilantes are stepping on your toes. But even the City must be able to see that the energy and care behind this project is a win. If nothing else, just to know that kind of commitment to improve our city exists in the midst of a constricted budget. Why not harness that energy? Other cities are. In fact there’s a whole book about it.

I suspect the City, or at least elements in it, agree with me. That was likely the heart behind the initial effort to work with the neighbors involved at 6th and St Helens after the first crosswalk appeared. In spite of all the bureaucracy the City has to wade through, it’s not hard to see we have a pretty great city government in many, many ways.

That being said, here’s where I think this could end up as a win for all parties:

  1. Of course there’s the boring stuff like the City holding a public process to look over the master plan(s) that affect pedestrian safety and make sure it’s comprehensive enough for a walkable city; and also helping educate drivers on watching for pedestrians at any intersection and educating walkers on safety. All that can’t hurt!
  2. Implementing programs that allow for citizens to paint crosswalks and create ways to help foster an environment of walkability in our neighborhoods (while hopefully increasing pedestrian safety).

That last one seems crazy, you say? Well a project we at Local Life have found inspiring in recent years is Better Block. The group basically goes into towns and helps activate dead areas through getting citizens involved in a few-day revitalization.

The first project Better Block did that we became aware of was in – wait for it – San Antonio. The previous employer of our awesome city manager! And here’s a picture of some folks painting a crosswalk a few weeks after his tenure there.

Here’s the difference! This project was working in partnership with the city government, itself (presumably – they’re busting up streets in broad daylight for Pete’s sake!). Our city can harness that same energy while helping create citizen investment and increasing social capital. Plus the City’s technocratic experts can help weigh in on crosswalk placement and set parameters for how they’re shaped.

Even if this wasn’t during a recession, a program like this would be a win for social capital and citizen investment, but how much more in a recession? And, perhaps most exciting, people who paint crosswalks are likely to use them and the sidewalks connected to them. I know I would. What do you think?

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