The number of Philadelphia traffic deaths increased by 88% in 2020 and more than 100 people have been killed in traffic crashes in 2021. Street art murals are a cost effective measure that simultaneously calms driver speeds and beautifies city streets.
Traffic deaths in Philadelphia are trending up since 2019, but the budget for life saving road improvements has been cut from $2.3 million to $1 million. For context, the recently completed Frankford Avenue traffic circle in Fishtown cost approximately $1.28 million dollars.
With the city cutting its budget to complete hard infrastructure projects that improve traffic safety, painting road markings and crosswalks can be a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to affect driver behavior. Installing unique creative artwork on roads painted with patterns and bright colors that reflect community ideas and values has the potential to draw drivers attention to areas where pedestrians are crossing. Road murals are placemaking and can bring quality of life improvements and social cohesion to neighborhood life and create Vision Zero buy-in from residents.
Philadelphia has been slow to adopt this type of road safety enhancement, but there has been some progress. The Gayborhood pride flag crosswalk installed in 2015 at 13th street and Locust street was one of the first street art murals in the city, but has sadly faded into a perfect example of the need for continued maintenance. This year, two neighborhoods installed street art murals meant to protect pedestrians at dangerous intersections.
Northern Liberties Business Improvement District (NLBID) completed an art crosswalk over the summer along the High Injury Network (HIN), the 12% of city streets where 80% of traffic deaths and severe injuries occur, at 2nd and Laurel Streets. South of South Street Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) installed two intersection art installations as part of their Safer Pathways to Our Schools “bulb out” project near two schools in South Philly. The SOSNA project is a “daylighting project” that prevents parking near the intersection, and includes “improve[d] sightlines between motorists and pedestrians,” which is estimated to offer a 30% reduction in vehicle pedestrian crashes according to the oTIS Pedestrian Action Plan (page 70).
However, these two examples were only made possible with tremendous support from residents and a business improvement district with the time and resources to navigate the city’s opaque approval process. Without a clear permit process that outlines the approval process for street murals and art crosswalks, this will remain out of reach for most of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.
Philadelphia is the poorest major city in the country, and a variety of socio-economic factors make it difficult for many city residents to advocate effectively for critical safety improvements to be installed in their neighborhoods. These safety improvements are most needed in low income neighborhoods and communities of color where the majority of Philadelphia’s HIN exists. The HIN should be used as a roadmap for where to quickly implement low cost traffic safety solutions like art crosswalks and street murals used for daylighting. A clear and transparent process for obtaining these improvements should be made publicly available, and targeted outreach should happen to neighborhoods along the HIN so that communities who need them most can access them.
Organizations like Portland’s City Repair Project have overseen more than 70 Intersection Repairs through murals since 2015. Seattle’s Curb Bulb Program, administered by Seattle’s DOT, allows residents to request improvements from the city which then hires a professional artist to implement the project.
In Philadelphia, an organization like Mural Arts is well positioned to step into the role of a street art facilitator, and has the public engagement experience, familiarity with materials, and infrastructure in place to lead a street mural program. The beloved Philadelphia institution has shown themselves to be an excellent partner when rethinking public road space as proven by their work with transforming Eakins Oval into The Oval and their technical assistance for the NoLibs BID and SOSNA projects. Ideally, Mural Arts would partner with the city to hold application clinics, waive permit fees, and offer technical and financial assistance with the design and paint costs to make bump out murals, artistic road diets, and painted crosswalks part of every neighborhood.
Philadelphia, the “mural capital of the world” and a city known internationally for it’s public art, also has one of the highest rates of traffic-related deaths per capita. Art has the potential to change people’s perspective, draw attention to a subject, and be a catalyst for change. Murals enhance the landscape of Philadelphia buildings, and can do the same for city streets while simultaneously increasing safety for pedestrians. Streamlining the process for community groups to install street murals is a key step toward achieving Vision Zero by 2030 and this artwork will help to beautify Philly roads, create more welcoming neighborhoods, and make communities safer.