Painted by Jade Warrick in Troy, New York (photo by Brittainy Newman; all images courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies)

A study conducted by Bloomberg Philanthropies examined 17 sites over two years, before and after they were painted with “asphalt art” (art on surfaces such as roads, sidewalks, and underpasses). It found a 17% decrease in total crashes and a decrease in severity of the crashes that did occur: There were 37% fewer crashes that resulted in injury and 50% fewer crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists.

“The art itself is often also intended to improve safety by increasing visibility of pedestrian spaces and crosswalks, promoting a more walkable public realm, and encouraging drivers to slow down and be more alert for pedestrians and cyclists, the most vulnerable users of the road,” the study reads.

The sites, spread across five states, were intersections or mid-block crosswalks. Around half of the sites were considered “urban core,” defined as areas with a high population density (including two in New York City), a quarter were neighborhood zones, and the last quarter were suburban.

Artist Chris Visions painted this intersection in Richmond, Virgina. (photo by Justin Holmes)
Artist Chris Visions working with students to create the intersection mural (photo by Matt Eich)

In addition to reporting the actual crash rate for these sites, the study also tracked the behavior of drivers and pedestrians, noting that both groups performed less risky behavior in areas with artworks — such as pedestrians crossing without the “walk” sign and drivers not yielding to pedestrians until the last moment. (Drivers were 27% more likely to yield to pedestrians when there was art on the road.)

Artists Cory Robinson and Shamira Wilson painted this intersection in Columbus, Indiana. (photo by James Brosher)

As of now, asphalt art is not allowed under the Federal Highway Association’s rules on road signs and signals, a lengthy set of guidelines that dictate the colors required for painting crosswalks, curbs, and lines. The decision to install asphalt art requires local officials to make exceptions.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’s report urges for the adoption of asphalt art into the federal road painting specifications and provides further justification for its project “Asphalt Art Initiative,” which has granted money to cities in the United States and Europe to create 42 roadway art pieces.

The discovery of asphalt art’s safety benefits compliments the notion that it can help to build community.

“Why not use projects like this to actually let people be involved, create a sense that public space belongs to everyone?” said Kate D. Levin, a former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs who now oversees arts programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies, in an interview with the New York Times last year.

The city of New York has also implemented asphalt arts programs in the past. However, rather than using them for traffic safety, many of the projects have been designated to pedestrian areas, such as the busy Doyers Street in Chinatown.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.