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Seattle will let neighborhoods design their own crosswalks

A Pan-African flag crosswalk on MLK
A Pan-African flag crosswalk on MLK near Powell Barnett Park

Remember when community members painted crosswalks in the Central District the colors of the Pan-African flag earlier this summer? We praised the city for making them official rather than trying to clean them off.

Well, now the city has gone one step further. Today, SDOT announced a new program to allow neighborhoods to officially implement custom crosswalks. It’s certainly a longer process than buying some paint and doing it yourself, but it will also last longer and the city will make sure it meets safety standards.

Of course, the crosswalk painters were not making a statement about the need for a community crosswalk program at SDOT/Department of Neighborhoods. In the words of the United Hood Movement: “We didn’t get $100,000 to do it. We just knew it would give people a sense ownership back to our community since gentrification has changed it so rapidly, and dramatically it’s hard to recognize the place we call… Home.”

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But it is a cool side-effect of the action that now communities have this new option for creating public art or identity markings right in the middle of their streets. It will take some fundraising or winning a Neighborhood Matching Fund grant, but that’s a small price to pay for a community-building addition like this. Because the streets belong to everyone, and this is just one more way to say so.

Unless your neighborhood is zerbra-themed, in which case the current crosswalks work just fine.

From SDOT:

The city is announcing the Community Crosswalks program, a new way for community members to acquire neighborhood oriented crosswalks.

SDOT and Seattle Department of Neighborhoods are jointly working on this program to allow interested community members to showcase their neighborhood’s unique culture and history or just liven up an intersection crosswalk with a colorful design. This is a great way for the city to celebrate our neighborhood communities in a creative and visual manner.

This is about celebrating and enhancing community identities,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “The iconic rainbow crosswalks on Capitol Hill started a broader conversation on how we can incorporate neighborhood character in the built environment across Seattle. I’m excited to see more history, culture, and community on display for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

Spurred by the popularity of Capitol Hill’s rainbow crosswalks, which were installed in June, residents can now use the existing Neighborhood Matching Fund to request such crosswalks. This will allow unique crosswalks to be approved and installed through an established process, ensuring that they are safe, reflective of community values and can be maintained.

To be eligible for an installation by SDOT, applicants will need to adhere to City guidelines for crosswalk locations and designs. Crosswalks must be sited where vehicles already stop for a traffic signal or stop sign, the design should consist only of horizontal or vertical bars, and the pavement underneath must be in good condition.

“We are pleased that other Seattle neighborhoods are being inspired by Capitol Hill’s rainbow crosswalks,” said SDOT Director Scott Kubly. “Through this joint SDOT/DON effort, we can transform other crossing points into tangible signs of community pride.”

Crosswalks typically cost about $25 per square foot, depending on the complexity of the design and installation, and can be expected to last approximately 3-5 years based on the amount of vehicular traffic at the location. More information about the program can be found here:  http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/community-crosswalks. Crosswalks installed or modified outside of this process will be reviewed by SDOT and removed/repainted if determined to be unsafe.

The Neighborhood Matching Fund provides matching dollars for neighborhood improvement, organizing, or projects that are developed and implemented by community members. More information about the longstanding program can be found here:  http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/neighborhood-matching-fund.

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21 responses to “Seattle will let neighborhoods design their own crosswalks”

  1. Chuck

    Can’t wait to see Scandinavian flags throughout Ballard!

    1. RDPence

      Hah! I believe the last Scandinavians moved out of Ballard some time ago. I remember when the last Scandinavian business closed it’s doors on Market Street.

    2. Southeasterner

      Read the fine print:

      “Crosswalks must be sited where vehicles already stop for a traffic signal or stop sign, the design should consist only of horizontal or vertical bars, and the pavement underneath must be in good condition.”

      In Ballard we don’t have any intersections where vehicles stop for traffic signals or stop signs and none of our pavement is in “good condition” so not likely we’ll see any our way.

    3. SashaBikes

      I’m proud of my Scandinavian heritage and live in Ballard! I wonder if it would make sense to do one at the Market/Leary/20th Ave NW intersection? Or maybe at the one further down Leary (outside of the senior housing, or Zeyda buddies) to try to help slow people down?

  2. Jonathan Mark

    I wonder if this detracts from the safety of these crosswalks. There are good reasons for roadway markings to be standardized: people are supposed to recognize them and do the safe thing automatically without having to think much, in all sunlight and weather conditions, with users who may have impaired eyesight.

    It is like when they changed the quarter coins to have 50 different designs on the back instead of all looking the same. Now picking through a handful of change is less automatic and requires a little more thought.

    Allow me to close my comment with a quote from SDOT’s web page on street maintenance. Read this and see if you are still excited about this exercise in mayoral PR:

    “With such a large backlog of needs on the busiest arterial streets, Seattle has little funding left over for pavement condition rating or paving on the 2,412 lane-mile non-arterial street network. SDOT has no funded program to assess non-arterial street condition. The base level of service SDOT is funded to provide on non-arterials is spot repair for safety.”

    1. ODB

      Gosh, I thought SDOT must be flush with cash, since they were able to devote staff time to this program:

      Evidently, SDOT is willing to devote staff time to fun projects like creative crosswalks and coffee cards, no matter what condition the pavement is in.

      1. Tom Fucoloro


        So you’re against the city trying to educate people about the need to obey the 2nd Ave bike and turn signals? I thought that was a brilliant way to not only do person-to-person outreach, but also get earned media to help spread the message. They spent a couple hours of staff time (with the help of volunteers and with gift cards funded by grants) to get the message on TV news stations, blogs and newspapers all over the region. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

      2. Skylar

        Indeed, I’d be more happy if the city would actually paint (and repaint, as needed) lane markings (bike and otherwise) where they’re urgently needed than to get a couple cutesy crosswalk.

      3. ODB

        Tom, I thought rewarding people for following the law on 2nd Ave. sent the wrong message. You don’t follow traffic laws because you might get a fun reward, like a pre-schooler getting a sticker, but because failing to do so might cost someone’s life.

        There is no special merit in following the law–it’s what everyone is compelled to do, which is why people are punished for illegal acts, not rewarded for refraining from illegal activity. It was a frivolous campaign that trivialized a serious safety issue.

        Moreover, the fact that SDOT felt compelled to raise awareness through a PR campaign about how to follow the rules is conclusive evidence of design failure. How can a transportation department purport to rely on media coverage and a few motorist encounters to ensure that everyone will know what to do going forward? The signals must be clear and intuitive on their own. That’s where SDOT should be spending its resources.

        Traffic signals work because they are standardized and don’t require learning something new at every intersection. The more SDOT experiments with unusual treatments (of whatever nature), the greater the risk of distraction, confusion and collisions.

        Finally, I think the hours of SDOT staff time could have been better spent ensuring that after streets are dug up for utility work, the patches are actually smooth and flush. Have you ridden the Yesler bike lane eastbound between 14th and 20th? The patches there span the bike lane and are unbelievably bumpy. It’s like a third world country. It’s a joke. So when SDOT is seen to be using staff time to hand out coffee cards in a fruitless effort to ameliorate a design failure–and there’s no money to resurface non-arterials, because all SDOT can do is triage the arterials at this point–I think it’s a PR disaster and evidence of a department that has lost sight of its basic mission.

    2. Alexander

      Agreed. I’ve seen a lot of discussion on this blog about wanting signs and markings that are MUTCD compliant. Now SDOT is actively encouraging non-MUTCD crosswalks. These crosswalks are not proven, effective, high-visibility designs. Never mind the serious problem of non-standard markings you rightly raise. Visitors from other cities could easily mistake a crosswalk for random street art and drive right through.

      White markings are a lot more visible than colored markings in low-light conditions. The crossing in the photo is a hybrid of the “transverse” crossing (with the white markings) and the “bar pair” crossing (with the red/green/black markings). Transverse crossings have been proven to be less visible than bar pair crossings, yet it is the bar pair portion of the example crossing that uses the lower-visibility colors. That is unambiguously a reduction in visibility, which means a reduction in safety.

      So pretty colors > pedestrian safety, according to SDOT. This makes a mockery of Vision Zero.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Go check out the city’s project website: http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/community-crosswalks

        The details of the city’s new program require designs to use colors the city can acquire in the form of high-visibility street-use materials. These are long-lasting and have reflective and brightness properties for night visibility. The rainbow crosswalks on Capitol Hill demonstrate this. There’s no way to confuse them or miss them no matter how dark it is out.

        That’s why this program is smart. They’re not saying, “Hey, go spray paint over our crosswalks!” Instead, they’re processing those ideas through their system and making them happen with proper and safe materials.

      2. Josh

        Actually, if you look at the rainbow crosswalks that SDOT did, they are MUTCD-compliant crosswalks — the colored material is filler between the transverse white lines of a properly-marked crosswalk. If you’ve seen them in the dark, the crosswalk lines are properly retroreflective, and quite conspicuous.

        Perhaps more imporantly, when the Central District guerilla crosswalk paint went in, SDOT responded by making the crosswalks MUTCD-compliant without removing the colored paint. (Added transverse crosswalk lines in proper retroflective white, restoring a legal marked crosswalk, while leaving the colored bars as filler within the crosswalk.)

      3. Alexander

        Is that a new change to the MUTCD? Because I was reading this:


        In part, it says:

        “Colored pavement located between crosswalk lines should not use colors or patterns that degrade the contrast of white crosswalk lines, or that might be mistaken by road users as a traffic control application. The bright colors and bold pattern of the proposed Buffalo treatment, and any other such treatment that features bright colors and/or distinctive patterns, would clearly degrade the contrast between the white transverse crosswalk lines and the roadway pavement, and therefore should not be used.”

      4. Josh

        The Buffalo design included patterns with outlines that could be mistaken for official markings. But if you look, for example, at FHWA’s response to Bellevue’s query, it’s more nuanced regarding what is and isn’t acceptable:

        * The white lines prescribed by MUTCD Section 3B.17 are necessary to establish a “marked” crosswalk. An unmarked crosswalk may exist legally at an intersection, giving pedestrians certain legal rights, but it does not afford pedestrians or approaching road users with the benefits of a visual indication of a crosswalk. The decision to provide a marked crosswalk at a given location is based on engineering studies and judgment.

        * Non-retroreflective colored pavement within the marked crosswalk lines for the purpose of decoration only is not considered to be a traffic control device, but the color of the pavement surface within the crosswalk should not degrade the contrast of the white crosswalk lines nor be potentially mistaken by road users as a traffic control application (i.e., to guide, warn, or regulate traffic).

        * Use of retroreflective colored pavement within the marked crosswalk lines is considered a traffic control device because it is obviously intended to communicate a traffic control message by enhancing the visibility of the crosswalk. However, such use is not compliant with the current edition of the MUTCD, which only provides for the use of diagonal or longitudinal white lines to provide enhanced visibility of a marked crosswalk.

        * A jurisdiction desiring to use colored retroreflective markings within the crosswalk lines would need to request FHWA experimentation approval in accordance with Section 1A.10, including a plan to evaluate the effects.

        * Use of either non-retroreflective or retroreflective colored pavement treatments without the white crosswalk lines specified by Section 3B.17, in a manner that would suggest to pedestrians or drivers that it is a “marked” crosswalk, is not in compliance with the MUTCD. The MUTCD specifically allows only certain patterns of white lines and bars for the purpose of communicating the message of a marked crosswalk to road users.

      5. Alexander

        The Buffalo letter is from 2011, while the Bellevue letter is from 2005. The new MUTCD is from 2009. I would assume the 2011 guidance would supersede guidance from 2005, considering a new MUTCD was issued in the interim.

        In the Buffalo letter, the FHA says that “It is our official interpretation that the proposed treatment in Buffalo would degrade the contrast of the white crosswalk lines and should not be used. This interpretation also applies to any colored pavement or colored marking materials within a crosswalk except subdued-colored paving bricks, paving stones, or materials designed to simulate such paving.”

        That is very clear to me. “Any colored pavement or colored marking materials” is not compliant, whether or not there is a design.

        I walked across several streets in Capitol Hill last night with badly-degraded crosswalk markings and stop lines. It would be nice if those were the priority, but style is ahead of substance, apparently.

    3. Tom Fucoloro

      Paving has nothing to do with this. The crosswalk program requires fundraising or winning a neighborhood grant.

      1. Jonathan Mark

        The Capitol Hill rainbow crosswalks were paid for by the city, not fundraising or a neighborhood grant. The Times reported Mayor Murray saying “The funds came out of fees related to development”, however I doubt a special developer fee was added for rainbow crosswalks. More likely, the funding competed directly with whatever else SDOT could have been doing.

        This provided a nice photo op for Mayor Murray, and created the need for SDOT to staff an ongoing program to deal with community painted crosswalks (otherwise it looks inequitable, as the guerilla crosswalk work elsewhere suggested). These resources will also compete with whatever else SDOT could have been doing. So I would disagree that this has nothing to do with paving.

        Also a few quotes from the MUTCD which I would interpret as forbidding this type of application:

        Section 3A.02:
        “When used for applications not described in this Manual, markings shall conform in all respects to the principles and standards set forth in this Manual.”

        Section 3A.05:
        “Markings shall be yellow, white, red, blue, or purple. The colors for markings shall conform to the standard highway colors.”

        Section 3B.18:
        “For added visibility, the area of the crosswalk may be marked with white diagonal lines at a 45-degree angle to the line of the crosswalk or with white longitudinal lines parallel to traffic flow…
        If used, the diagonal or longitudinal lines should be 12 to 24 inches wide and separated by gaps of 12 to 60
        inches. The design of the lines and gaps should avoid the wheel paths if possible, and the gap between the lines
        should not exceed 2.5 times the width of the diagonal or longitudinal lines.”

  3. […] A crosswalk with the colors of the Pan-African flag near Seattle’s Powell Barnett Park. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog […]

  4. RDPence

    There something to be said for commonality among various street design elements. There are enough distractions for motorists’ eyes already without adding more on the street itself. And pedestrians’ eyes need to be focused on approaching vehicles, not marveling at the colorful paint beneath their feet.

  5. Maybe we can get money from the city for crosswalks all up and down Dexter that say:


  6. Doug Bostrom

    What a self-indulgently precious and romantic idea, entirely divorced from facts.

    Safely operating a moving vehicle of any kind is in large part a matter of situational awareness, and situational awareness is a matter of the speed at which we can process our perceptions. Irregular signage increases processing load, hence reduces our effective situational awareness.

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