Painting Your Own Crosswalk: Crime or Civic Opportunity?

A man was jailed for painting a crosswalk at a dangerous intersection. When he got back to his neighborhood, he was hailed as a hero.

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Maureen Wilson/Jason Leach

In Vallejo, California, last week, a man was arrested and jailed for painting a crosswalk at what he says is a dangerous intersection in his city.

Anthony Cardenas, 52, was bailed out to the tune of $15,000 by an anonymous donor after a night in the slammer. When he got back to his neighborhood, he was greeted with what the local Times-Herald referred to as “a hero’s welcome”:

"He does nothing but try to do good," said Vanessa Arriola, who works at a hair salon across the street from Cardenas' house. "He's harmless as a person can be, to be completely honest."…

In light of more serious crime problems in the neighborhood, she called his arrest "beyond the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

Cardenas told reporters assembled at the spot that he was motivated by a concern for public safety, but that he won’t be repeating the action:

"I thought, 'They have to do something there, or I'm going to have to do something,' " Cardenas said. He claimed he had reported his concerns to public works officials, but they brushed him off.

Prosecutors have not yet decided if they will press charges, or what the charges would be. Cardenas says his crosswalk-painting days are done.

You could class Cardenas’s action as a type of tactical urbanism, a term that has grown in popularity since the publication of the first “Tactical Urbanism” handbook in 2011 (an updated edition came out last year). The name covers a wide range of activities aimed at improving the streetscape -- guerrilla gardening, DIY crosswalks like the one in Vallejo, improvised street seating.

People take actions like this all the time, often out of a sense of frustration at a lack of response from government to what they perceive as safety problems. Getting arrested for things like painting a crosswalk is much more rare. Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative, who co-wrote and edited the tactical urbanism handbooks, told me he knew of only one other instance of a crosswalk painter being arrested, in Muncie, Indiana, in 2008.

For citizens who deploy these tactics, the goal is not simply to provoke or disrupt. Ultimately, it’s to assist cities in identifying problems and implementing changes that make sense in the local context. From the second "Tactical Urbanism" handbook:

In an increasing number of instances, municipalities follow the lead of their residents by more permanently implementing the short-term, low-budget livability improvements initiated by citizen-activists.

That’s exactly what happened recently in Hamilton, Ontario, although not without some bumps along the way.

In April, Lydon went to Hamilton at the invitation of the Hamilton-Burlington Society of Architects to take a look at some of the city’s more problematic intersections. That trip resulted in some concrete tactical urbanist experiments, such as painting marked crosswalks where there were none and placing orange traffic cones to create a temporary "bump-out" that would slow cars in a school zone -- a move that won the approval of a crossing guard at the spot, according to Raise the Hammer, a local blog:

I asked the long-time crossing guard what she thought of the project. With immediate enthusiasm, she said, "I like it!" The guard did not know who had installed the cones or why, but she was highly supportive, saying it makes the corner a lot safer.

The traffic calming "really controls the traffic. It was getting scary," she said, noting that the bumpouts force the cars to slow down instead of racing aggressively through the intersection.

Lydon returned a couple of weeks later to present the result of the actions and continue the discussion.

The city of Hamilton was not so pleased. A letter went out from public works general manager Gerry Davis:

These changes to City streets are illegal, potentially unsafe and adding to the City's costs of maintenance and repair. The City can consider this as vandalism, with the potential for serious health and safety consequences for citizens, particularly pedestrians. There is potential liability and risk management claims to both the City and the individuals involved.

All the DIY improvements were removed, a crackdown that upset many in Hamilton. Raise the Hammer had this to say:

Of course, left unmentioned is the ongoing danger to individuals and liability to the city from Hamilton's status quo of pedestrian- and cyclist-unfriendly automobile oriented streets, a shameful legacy that has continued unimpeded for decades despite the overwhelming weight of evidence, expert testimonial, and even official policy.

If citizens are taking street design into their own hands, it is out of extreme frustration with the failure, year after year after year, of city leaders on Council and in senior management, to make the necessary changes themselves.

But the story doesn’t end there. Graham McNally, a local architect who was instrumental in orchestrating Lydon’s visits to Hamilton, says that the high visibility of the crosswalk and bump-out actions meant the city couldn’t turn a blind eye to the persistent concerns of area residents.

Tactical Urbanism poster by Matt Jelly.

"We ended up with pretty good feedback that the city couldn’t ignore," says McNally.

And so city officials met with a group of advocates for street improvements late last month, and agreed to paint enhanced crosswalks and bumpouts at the intersection in question. McNally says that officials have indicated their willingness to extend such improvements to other intersections around the city, and actually appear to appreciate for the initiative taken by the citizens to show support for walkable streets in a traditionally auto-centric community. Advocates for traffic calming have revealed themselves as a constituency that must be reckoned with.

“They seem very receptive,” says McNally of the officials he met with. “But we are aware that we can lose momentum, we’re very cognizant of that.” He says that his group is pushing for the next round of changes to happen quickly.

McNally points out that for city officials, tactical urbanism can represent a chance to demonstrate their responsiveness to the people they represent. “It’s a great opportunity for the city to engage with citizens, and let people have input," he says.

Maybe someone needs to call the people running Vallejo and tell them the news.

Top image: The intersection of Locke and Herkimer with temporary traffic cones (photo by Maureen Wilson) and then the final city-approved paint job (photo by Jason Leach).

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.