Johnston Square Park overlooks the crosswalk art at the intersection of Chase and Valley streets. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Cars speeding around Johnston Square Elementary School scared Regina Hammond.

“We knew it was a real serious problem just waiting to happen,” said Hammond, president and founder of Rebuild Johnston Square, the neighborhood group.

But since volunteers painted brightly colored pavement designs at three key intersections near the school this spring, drivers have been slowing down and yielding to pedestrians more regularly.

Johnston Square’s “Bee Safe Art Crosswalks” project was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Asphalt Art Initiative and AARP. Rebuild Johnston Square also worked on the project with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, the Made You Look project from Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center for Social Design, The Neighborhood Center, and ReBUILD Metro.

Johnston Square Elementary School is located in East Baltimore between Chase and Biddle streets. Although the speed limit for the school zone is 25 miles per hour, many drivers zip through the intersections at much higher speeds, neighbors say.

“What the crossing guards had to do was really work to make sure that cars were slowing down when they came past the school zone,” said Johnston Square Elementary School Principal Baba Olumiji.

Olumiji, his secretary, and custodians often head into the streets to ensure that students can cross safely, especially when crossing guards are off duty.

Over several weekends in March and April, more than 100 volunteers painted the traffic-calming pavement designs — called bump outs — at three intersections around the elementary school: the intersection of Biddle and Valley streets; the intersection of Chase and Valley streets; and the intersection of Chase and Wilcox streets.

The bump outs narrow the roadway to encourage drivers to slow down when going through intersections and to make wider turns farther away from the street corners where pedestrians stand.

“They are an attractive, visual deterrent” for speeding and reckless driving, Olumiji said about the colorful flower and bee designs that now adorn the roadway.

Pedestrians crossing Chase Street from Henrietta Lacks Park to Johnston Square Elementary School now have a bright yellow asphalt art where there was not crosswalk before this year. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

The Chase and Wilcox intersection had no crosswalk before the asphalt art project. Hammond said that was dangerous for children who live in the nearby Latrobe Homes public housing and who walked through Henrietta Lacks Park to get to school.

“They would come straight through the park and take their chances” by crossing Chase Street mid-block, Hammond said.

Each intersection has a different color scheme — pink, blue, and yellow — so family and friends can easily coordinate meeting spots after school.

“If you’ve got a lot of kids coming out of school, and if you’ve got parents looking for kids, at least now they know which crosswalk they’re supposed to be meeting their parent or whoever at,” Hammond said.

A city speed study done at the intersection of Biddle and Valley streets found 42% of motorists drove over the speed limit before the art crosswalks were installed. Some drivers were clocked speeding as fast as 80 miles per hour in the school zone around dismissal time.

“Many drivers were using those streets as kind of cut-throughs through Johnston Square to get to other neighborhoods or to get downtown, so drivers were speeding,” said David Andersson, a member of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ arts team who worked with Johnston Square.

Drivers also frequently failed to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross the streets. Volunteers tracked how often drivers came to an intersection with pedestrians, and whether the motorists waited to allow the pedestrians to cross.

Before pink and purple art was painted on the roadway at the intersection of Biddle and Valley streets, about one-third of drivers yielded to pedestrians trying to cross the street. Now, more than eight in 10 drivers yield to pedestrians’ right of way, according to an evaluation report of the Johnston Square’s “Bee Safe” crosswalks. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Before the asphalt art project, 40% of drivers yielded to pedestrians crossing at the Chase and Valley streets intersection, and 35% of drivers yielded at the Biddle and Valley streets intersection, the study found.

But after the art was implemented, the study showed 68% of drivers yielded to pedestrians’ right of way at Chase and Valley, and 85% at Biddle and Valley.

“It’s been much better,” Olumiji said. “Things have slowed down significantly.”

Johnston Square is joining a national trend of cities incorporating art into their roadways to make streets safer for pedestrians and other road users.

A study produced by Sam Schwartz Consulting in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies examined crash data at 17 asphalt art sites in five states, and found crashes involving pedestrians and other “vulnerable road users” dropped by 50% after areas added asphalt art.

The study also found a 27% rise in the frequency of drivers immediately yielding to pedestrians with the right of way, and a 38% decrease in pedestrians crossing when they didn’t have a walk signal.

Andersson said it is difficult to “psychoanalyze” drivers to understand why asphalt art encourages them to slow down. But he theorizes that seeing art makes drivers more inclined to treat the neighborhood with care. Meanwhile, wider streets with fewer people walking are treated like high-speed highways, he said.

“It seems that when you are driving down a street and you see artwork on the road, and you see that there has been care and attention to make a really fun and vibrant space for the people who were there, it makes you feel like this street is activated and this street is cared for and used by the people walking around and it’s not empty. It’s not abandoned,” he said.

As cities improve urban design, particularly in underinvested neighborhoods, Andersson said they must create spaces where people want to live and visit – not just pass through.

“Many places really have prioritized cars and really have filled streets through neighborhoods around the idea that cars will be driving through them rather than making the neighborhood a destination in itself,” he said.

In Johnston Square, art was used as a placemaking tool, Andersson said.

“It wasn’t just safety intervention that was needed, but also making the streets more vibrant, making them more welcoming to pedestrians, and signaling to drivers these streets are not just for cars but they’re for people too…. It turns this gray swath of asphalt into a place that is clearly for the people who are walking on the road,” he said.

More than 100 volunteers painted crosswalk art, including brightly colored flower and bee designs, at intersections around Johnston Square Elementary School this spring. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Porschea Dupree, whose son is a second grade student at Johnston Square Elementary School, moved to the neighborhood about six months ago, so she didn’t know the area before the asphalt art was implemented.

Still, she feels the crosswalks and bright bump outs make it safer for children and their families to walk to and from school.

“My son, he’s a child with a disability, so we just want to try to make the environment safer for the children. That’s what I really care about,” said Dupree, whose son is autistic.

Dupree said there’s still room for improvement. She would like to see four-way stops added at the intersections. Currently, drivers must stop at the intersections when driving on Valley Street, but there are no stop signs at the intersections near the school on Biddle or Chase streets.

She also wants a “pedestrian crossing” sign installed at the Chase and Wilcox intersection crosswalk.

Hammond said art is not only making Johnston Square safer, but is also improving the neighborhood’s visual appeal and fostering a greater sense of shared community ownership by including neighbors’ input in the process.

“I think it adds another level of safety for the kids and the parents or people in general crossing in that area,” Hammond said. “But I think it also sends a message about the community as a whole: that Johnston Square is on the rise and good things are happening here and beauty is coming to this community.”

For communities looking to implement their own asphalt art (with city permitting), Bloomberg Philanthropies has developed an Asphalt Art Guide with tips and steps for creating a roadway art project.

MICA’s Made You Look project has also produced an Art in the Right of Way Toolkit, with their own step-by-step guide and tools that can be checked out of the Station North Tool Library.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...