Paint your own crosswalk
DIY urbanism in LA
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Last week I talked about going back to school for a year to study sustainable cities. One of my favorite topics was Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, defined as when local activists make creative, temporary, and unauthorized interventions into their urban landscape, often in response to perceived neglect by local authorities. DIY urbanism goes by many names: tactical, pop-up, guerrilla. Examples include dumpsters converted into swimming pools, parking spots turned into small parks, and makeshift street signs put up at intersections. Academic frameworks too often get stuck in the realm of the theoretical, but DIY urbanism is refreshingly practical from start to finish—literally people taking their city into their own hands! For a readable survey of DIY urbanism, I recommend this journal article by Gordon Douglas.
Here is a story from NPR about a recent instance of DIY urbanism in Los Angeles:
There's a mystery on the streets of Hollywood in Los Angeles.
A series of striped crosswalks suddenly appeared at a busy residential intersection, and the secretive group that claims it's behind the do-it-yourself project says it has more in the works.
"The city doesn't keep us safe, so we keep us safe," Crosswalk Collective LA announced on Twitter in a post that included photos of the freshly painted intersection at a four-way stop at Romaine Street and Serrano Avenue.
Crosswalk Collective LA describe themselves as a “small group of community members” who “tried for years to request crosswalks and other safe streets infrastructure the official way” but encountered “delays, excuses, and inaction from our city government, as well as active hostility to safe streets projects from sitting councilmembers.” In other words, textbook DIY urbanism! An unsanctioned intervention borne of frustration with local authorities! Also likely a temporary one. “Any unauthorized alteration to a street is subject to removal,” the city told NPR.
Intersection repairs are a fun subsection of DIY urbanism. This paper by Luca Bertolini gives a nice overview of city street experiments, defined as changes to the street itself rather than experiments in which the street serves as a backdrop. Bertolini describes an intersection repair that took place in Portland, Oregon, in 1997, where residents added community features to a local street crossing (e.g., a bulletin board, benches, and a children’s playhouse) with the aim of slowing traffic and making the space safer and more interactive. City officials at first planned to remove the DIY effort, but it proved so popular that they ultimately let it stay and a few years later adopted an ordinance to permit more projects like it. That said, these things don’t always go so well. In 2013, a man was arrested in Vallejo, California, for painting a crosswalk at what he considered a dangerous intersection (he was later bailed out for $15,000 by an anonymous donor).
What I like about this story is that the stakes are at once small and profound. On the one hand, concerned citizens painting rogue crosswalks at intersections seems relatively harmless; this isn’t Kramer deciding to black out lane lines on a mile of highway to create a “two-lane comfort cruise.” On the other, it raises big questions about the limits of urban governance, citizen participation, and how people should engage when they feel the civic process has failed them.
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I’d argue that many gig companies started with an approach not dissimilar to acts of DIY urbanism—except that, obviously, they were in it to make money. Uber famously launched its ride-hail service in countless cities either without permission from local authorities or in explicit defiance of them. I also love the story of how when Bird first deployed e-scooters in Santa Monica in 2018, CEO Travis VanderZanden alerted the mayor to their arrival with a LinkedIn message about Bird’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica.”
It’s easy enough for a local government to remove crosswalks painted by anonymous citizens or to intimidate the people responsible. It’s much harder to reclaim control from a brash and well-funded technology startup that waltzes into a city and makes clear it isn’t leaving without a fight. Silicon Valley knows this and has long played these unspoken power dynamics to its advantage. Part of the early theory of Uber was that if people just had a chance to try the service, they would love it and become staunch defenders of it, making efforts to shut down ride-hail politically unviable. Each time Uber launched in a city without permission, it bet that it could weather political, regulatory, and legal challenges until public opinion turned in its favor. That bet almost always paid off.
DIY urbanists don’t usually have this luxury. Sometimes, as with the street repairs in Portland in the 1990s, their efforts may win popular support and survive political pushback; other times, as happened to the man in Vallejo, they may end up in jail and permanently dissuaded from urban intervention. But imagine for just a moment that the Uber of bygone days were painting those crosswalks in LA. Would it stop because the city expressed dislike for its handiwork? Absolutely not! OG Uber would rally the people of LA with push notifications and user emails! It would urge them to contact their elected officials while deriding the local government as out of touch and inept! It would blast out an economic study using proprietary Uber data to show how the Uber crosswalks were reducing congestion and improving pedestrian safety!
The point of this hypothetical is to highlight the vastly different odds that unauthorized urban interventions face when they are conducted by a powerful for-profit company versus a small group of community members. You can love or hate DIY urbanism and the Crosswalk Collective LA project, but we make choices all the time about whether a change to the urban landscape is legitimate, and companies and individuals seeking to make these changes walk a very different path.