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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paint the Town

Transportation engineers have long been painters, although the markings they have applied in white and yellow are not something anyone has ever recognized as artwork. Of course, they never intended for their functional markings to be a visual art (although their engineering work can be as much art as science at times). I find it interesting to note the pallet they use has been expanding in recent years, and our cities are gaining a little more colorful accent as a result. In some cases, transportation agencies are even using paint to create public art in places that have traditionally been mundane or outright unsightly.

Here's a quick rundown of the color pallet used for functional markings, a note about incorporating art to mitigate the unattractive spaces sometimes created by transportation, and some discussion of the limitations of paint.

White and Yellow
This is the plain vanilla everybody is familiar with. White is used for lane markings, stop lines, crosswalks, text, etc. Yellow is used for centerlines and the left edge of one-way roadways, providing a nice accent.

One of the new additions to the roadway color pallet, green has become flashier as more bike lanes have been colored and bike boxes added to more intersections.

This accent appears only sparingly. Accessible parking spaces provide a splash of blue. Some jurisdictions experimented with blue for bicycle lanes, although green is becoming the standard.

This strong highlight sometimes appears on curbs to emphasize parking restrictions. Usage varies considerably. Red curb markings are often used to denote no parking zones for fire lanes at shopping malls, cinemas, and other large parking lots. Some jurisdictions use red to highlight on-street parking restrictions; other places like New York City do not employ red curb markings at all (although there has been discussion from time to time about using it to indicate the 15-foot no-parking zones at fire hydrants).
Photo: Larry Shuffield

Another new addition, terracotta reserves lanes for transit vehicles. The colored bands provide a low-key outline along the streets.

And Introducing... Truffle
The New York City Department of Transportation has developed a "rapid-reponse toolkit" that it uses to make pedestrian improvements without capital construction. This has a number of advantages. It is low-cost and requires little physical work, allowing the department to make improvements very quickly. It also eases the processes with community stakeholders and internal skeptics alike, because the changes are not permanent and can be adjusted or even removed if necessary. One of the main tools in this kit is the truffle paint, which is used to provide a distinctive, yet subdued treatment for pedestrian walkways that are not separated from the roadbed by curbing like a sidewalk.

Adding a Little Texture
Much of the color applied on roadways these days isn't really paint like you would apply with a brush. Rather, it is thermoplastic; plastic sheets that are applied at very high temperatures to create a permanent bond with the roadway surface. The material has some advantages in terms of texture, reflectivity, and longevity.

Perhaps the most exciting use is for crosswalk treatments. Crosswalks all use the white regulatory markings, but some locations exercise the option of applying distinctive treatments between the regulatory markings. Traditionally, this was done with brickwork, but this came with problems, especially in northern climates. The bricks eventually shift a little, and once they become loose, traffic starts to beat them apart. The cyclical action of freezing and thawing, in particular, can cause the bricks crosswalks to deteriorate very quickly. A new option that avoids these problems, and provides a greater range of color options, is inlaid thermoplastic.

Some places, such as Edina, MN, have started to experiment with inlaid thermoplastic to create more distinctive patterns. So far, these have generally retained the notion of bricks, but it will be interesting to see new artistic expressions emerge as people become more comfortable exploring the new medium.

Photo: City of Edina, MN

Letting Imagination Run Wild!

An early effort to beautify Jersey barriers with public art was implemented in 1998 by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, with the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. They commissioned an art project on 45 Jersey barriers at a construction site in downtown Providence.

It seems like not much really happened in this direction after that until the New York City Department of Transportation gradually geared up a program to decorate some of its Jersey barriers beginning around 2007.
Photo: NYC DOT

Since then, public art programs applying the talents of artists to Jersey barriers has become somewhat more widespread and is hopefully catching on. Boston has also recently started an effort to beautify its own Jersey barriers.
Winning design for Boston's ArtBarrier program

While the more unsightly places are obvious and perhaps most deserving candidates for visual improvements, there is no reason to stop there. The rainbow crosswalk in West Hollywood is a clever example where public art has started to engage these materials to bring more joy into the path of daily life.
Photo: City of West Hollywood

The Limits of Paint
Maintenance is emerging as a real issue that needs to be addressed. There has been a lingering need for years to establish standards to ensuring basic markings remain visible. As the use of these colored treatments has grown, the issue only becomes more significant.

I have seen far too many locations where crosswalk markings were faded beyond recognition. Unlike with signage, many jurisdictions apparently have not established inspection routines to identify and correct locations where markings are no longer sufficiently visible. In some places, New York City comes to mind, repaving work is not sufficiently coordinated with the markings crews. As a result, repaved streets frequently go several weeks or even several months without being marked. Traffic control devices need to be treated more seriously, but there is a lack of regulatory emphasis when it comes to the maintenance of markings. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has a placeholder (Section 3A.03) for maintaining the retroreflectivity of markings; hopefully FHWA rule making will address this deficiency in the near future.

Even with proper maintenance, marking the surface has some functional limitation, since it is obscured when covered with snow. As a result, paint is best used in combination with signage or other devices that won't be obscured. Some of the newer applications, like truffle-paint walkways, are still sorting out these details.
Without a curb, drivers are prone to parking on the
walkway they cannot see under the snow
The approach of using paint for quick pedestrian improvements has been positive, but it does raise concerns about the possibility of cutting corners and neglecting permanent improvements.
In Times Square, a permanent improvement has just been unveiled. The paint proved the concept, and capital money has been invested to create what promises to be an amazing civic space.

Yet Times Square is a spectacularly unique place. At the crossroads of the world, it bathes in media attention, attracts tourists by the millions (along with their spending), and it now anchors some of the world's most lucrative retail. Spending on the upgrades for a permanent public space is to be expected. What of the less visible corners where working people with no significant influence live? Will real sidewalks and curb extensions be provided in a timely manner, or does this become a way to trim the budget with a sort of two-tier approach to building public facilities? It is a legitimate concern, and one that deserves some scrutiny and possible advocacy.

Fortunately, for now my impression is that in New York, the new tools have actually been reducing the equity problems. Some of the locations that have received these treatments had been denied capital investment for decades, and are now finally seeing some level of improvement. Either way, permanent improvements are important. The paint is good to resolve problems quickly, but it isn't a substitute for permanent improvements.

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