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How Well Do Street Murals Help Calm Traffic?

A Canadian city is the latest to try preventing collisions with public art.

The Ontario city of Kitchener has a problem intersection that seems to attract accidents. But municipal regulations prevent the installation of a four-way stop.

So what’d Kitchener do? Well, this:

The Mount Hope-Breithaupt Park Neighbourhood Association persuaded the city to place an eye-grabbing mural smack in the middle of the intersection. The hope is the artwork, now part of a pilot traffic project, will make drivers focus and navigate the crossing with caution. (Here’s a 360-degree, street-level view.)

Kitchener is the latest in a long line of communities to attempt traffic calming via public art. In the 1990s, citizens of Portland, Oregon, started painting their own intersections; a former volunteer says it was “not just about traffic calming” but also “building a sense of community.” St. Paul followed up with two murals in 2006, this trippy number being the one that remains:

Google Maps

Cambridge also got in on the action that year. Though there doesn’t appear to be anything of it left, the Boston Globe preserved a choice interaction between muralist and motorist:

This month, local artist Wen-ti Tsen put the finishing touches on the mural—white, green, and red dashes in a 20-foot-diameter blue circle—he painted on the pavement at the busy intersection of Walden Street and Vassal Lane, pleasing neighbors and pedestrians, but angering some drivers.

“One man swore at me,” said Tsen. “Even when I explained what I was doing, he said it was a stupid idea.”

Ah, but he slowed down, didn't he?

Minneapolis and Tacoma, Washington, installed murals in 2011, shown here respectively:

Google Maps
Google Maps

The fact many of these artworks are but ghostly traces today does not speak well of the tactic’s long-term effectiveness. (Or maybe it worked so well all problems were eliminated? Hmmm.) But Kitchener officials plan to collect traffic data at the intersection, and will reevaluate the mural method in a year’s time.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.