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It’s No Illusion: The Crosswalk Art You See Here Might Save Your Life

May 22, 2019
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It’s No Illusion: The Crosswalk Art You See Here Might Save Your Life
A three dimensional zebra crossing in Tauranga city centre, a new safety feature to slow traffic down. Steve Clancy Photography/Getty Images
From India to Iceland, Boston to Seattle, crosswalks are levitating to beautify intersections and make for safer passage.

Three-dimensional crosswalks may come to your neighborhood — but they aren’t a futuristic technological advancement. they’re an optical illusion that could save your life.

Here’s how it works: an artist will take the typical zebra-striped crosswalks you see everywhere, then paint shadows around them. It’s a simple process with a stunning result: To the drivers approaching, it’ll appear as though the blocks are suspended above the asphalt. And the people crossing, they’ll also seem to float.

But 3D crosswalks are more than just a jaw-dropping visual effect: The cities behind them hope they might be eye-catching enough to save your life.

Pedestrian deaths are rising at an alarming rate. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018 as compared to 4,414 in 2008 in the United States — a 35 percent increase. This number is contrasted by a six percent decline in all other traffic deaths. The study cited unsafe infrastructure, speeding and alcohol use as big contributors along with smartphone use.

“I’ve been in this business for 36 years, and I’ve never seen a pattern like this,” Richard Retting, who wrote the report and has worked in a variety of traffic engineering and safety roles, told The New York Times.

The 3D crosswalk’s purpose is to grab the driver’s attention and, as a result, he or she will navigate the intersection carefully.

While the 3D design has been implemented and experimented, there isn’t definitive proof yet that it works. But cities are doing everything they can to reduce pedestrian deaths. And it’s an inexpensive tactic that doesn’t require much additional work for city planners.

This approach to crosswalk safety gained worldwide popularity on social media when the city of Ísafjörður, Iceland, installed 3D crosswalks in 2017.

Ralf Trylla, Ísafjörður’s environmental officer, saw similar crosswalks in India and decided to try it in his city.

“I was looking for other possibilities and different solutions to slow down traffic other than the regular speed bumps,” he told Quartz.

Speed bumps are often criticized for their impact on cars and car owners. And when a study published by the UK National Institute for Health suggested speed bumps contribute to increased air pollution, Trylla decided to give 3D crosswalks a shot.

He said he watched drivers slow down and be more cautious through the intersection. “So in that way, I would say that it’s a success so far.”

Since then, these crosswalks have been painted in China, London, Canada and across the U.S, in Oklahoma, Illinois and, now, Massachusetts.

The city of Medford, near Boston, recently adopted the idea. The first one in the Boston area is painted near Brooks Elementary School, with more crosswalks planned for each elementary school in the city.

Two Brooks students had the idea for the crosswalk near their school. They worked with a teacher and the Brooks Center for Citizen and Social Responsibility to pressure the city into painting the crosswalks.

“When you’re walking across you can tell it’s painted, but what we hope is, when you’re driving down, you’ll see it as 3-D, three dimensional. So it looks real,” Isa, one of the students, told WBZ.

3D crosswalks are not the first public-arts approach to creating safer pedestrian pathways. In Warsaw, Poland, piano keys were painted to replace traditional crossings, and in Seattle, Washington, the crosswalks transformed into rainbows to celebrate LGBTQ pride. Baltimore, Maryland, tried a hopscotch technique to slow local traffic down.

More: The Ghost Bikes Project Gives Voice to the Dead

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