Published on July 11th, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe


Proceed With Caution: Guerrilla Crosswalks in Perspective

crosswalk logo

There has been a lot of excitement in Tacoma lately about a secret group of pedestrian activists who sneak into the streets at night to paint crosswalks in areas where traffic is hazardous to walkers or cyclists. Tacoma News Tribune reporter Kathleen Cooper has interviewed the rogue painters under condition of anonymity, allowing them to clearly convey their message, objectives, and impatience with the lack of satisfactory action by the city to make Tacoma more pedestrian friendly.

In turn, city staff has responded with a detailed request that the illegal artwork be stopped, explaining the negative consequences of this creative protest. Officials have already begun meeting with community groups and have requested further hearings and studies on the matter of pedestrian safety in Tacoma. They have also been removing the so-called “guerrilla crosswalks” with grinding machines, at the cost of $1000 each (at least), and threatening legal action against those who might paint them in the future.

For most people, the issue is simple: Pedestrians = Awesome, and very Portland-ish (the epitome of awesome). Not Helping Pedestrians = Not Very Awesome, Dude. People get hit by cars a lot in Tacoma. Let’s get more crosswalks. Stop being dicks, City of Tacoma! End of discussion.

That simple perspective strikes me as troublingly ideological and lacking in nuance. This issue is very multi-faceted, though many of the influencing factors get drowned out by the fact that human safety is involved. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to consider all perspectives if we are ever going to arrive at an implementable solution to Tacoma’s pedestrian traffic safety problems.

The city is required to remove crosswalks that have not undergone the standard design approval process, since there are specific national laws that apply to their installation which invite legal action if neglected. There are design standards* that must be met and engineering studies that must be completed for each and every painted crossing. The standards are concerned with the speed of vehicular traffic, stopping distances, visibility (affected by grades, curves, turns, and intersections), proximity to intersections, etcetera. A crosswalk may seem to just be reflective paint on the asphalt, but it is an engineered roadway feature, just like a curb or street drain. There is not a city on earth that would allow rogue engineering of public infrastructure, for obvious reasons.

Try to argue with that. I dare you.

From a practical standpoint, the rogue crosswalks also pose the hazard of the perceived sense of safety that a crosswalk provides. A rogue crosswalk may actually increase the chance of being hit by a car because the pedestrian is less cautious. The driver doesn’t expect the new crosswalk, or may not even see it until it’s too late, despite the best intentions of our merry band of folk heroes.


Even so, there is undoubtedly a serious lack of designated street crossings in Tacoma, especially around schools. Most new crosswalks are only added in areas where recent road work has been done. Everywhere else in town, non-motorized citizens are left to dodge across the street wherever they can expediently do so. This creates unpredictable, and therefore, unsafe, road conditions. Lack of convenient crossings could potentially cause pedestrians to more frequently cross at places where the city has already determined a crosswalk would be inappropriate due to speed or visibility concerns. Ideally, drivers can learn to expect pedestrian traffic at established crosswalks. Clearly, Tacoma is not the ideal.

Inadequate funding has been cited as the primary reason for this unfortunate state of affairs. The rogue painters have declared that this excuse is invalid, since they spent very little to paint several nice crosswalks and bike lanes. This is a stupid argument.

Suppose the city decided to flout the law, foregoing study and approval processes for each crosswalk. Suppose our public works employees decided to just go on a painting spree. The costs would still exceed anything the protesters could imagine, and eventually, someone would get hurt and sue the city.

To make matters somewhat worse, most of the funding Tacoma receives for street improvements seems to be locked grants for targeted projects – not monies that can go into general improvement funds. That’s why we’re sure to see nice crosswalks on Pacific Avenue after the rain gardens go in, but probably not in the more heavily residential areas, for instance. It’s not a matter of City Hall priorities: They were able to get the funding for those specific projects, and decided to construct those specific projects. Those funds cannot be reallocated.

Despite their somewhat artfully juvenile tactics, the guerrilla crosswalk painters are not the problem. Based upon their judicious concerns of liability and restrictions of funding, City staff is not at fault either. There is no lack of initiative in City Hall to make Tacoma a friendly place for non-motorized traffic. City officials are genuine, key partners in this progressive goal, and calling that into question is extremely dramatic and unhelpful for all concerned.

Vehicle operators are the problem. If drivers consistently and vigilantly honored the right of pedestrians to cross the street, even painted crossings would not be necessary. When crossing legally, pedestrians always have the right of way in public roads. After 60 years of suburbanization, road-widening, freeway expansion, and entrenchment of “Car Culture,” Americans don’t expect to see walkers or cyclists. The pedestrian is an anomaly, and we apparently can’t see them unless they are accompanied by gigantic slabs of reflective paint. The pedestrian is an obstruction to our desperate need to go places faster with fewer stops. It’s a mindset that needs to change. After all, all the crosswalks in the world couldn’t stop a shitty driver from hitting a pedestrian.

crossing sign

That’s not to say City Hall gets a free pass here. Enforcement priority needs to be put on pedestrian safety. Appropriate staff should show engagement and follow-through in pedestrian-friendly initiatives. And when the tax dollars start coming in again, let’s get out the fucking paintbrushes, guys.

I understand the tempered perspective I’ve presented here may irritate, or seem a bit grumpy and unprogressive. I mean, what kind of hipster could ever resist cheeky, civic-minded street art? My analysis, though, is not dispassionate. I run on the streets of Central and North Tacoma every day, and I have been hit by a car quite forcefully while doing so. I can tell you how it feels to have your gums scraped on asphalt. I was even in a crosswalk at the time.

I truly want to see an improved pedestrian environment here, but I do not think that can be accomplished by pointing fingers at city staff (at least not for the reasons cited), and I do not think the arguments laid out by the guerrilla crosswalk painters get us any closer to that goal. Their stunts may have raised public awareness, which is certainly needed, but they also had the perhaps unintended consequence of moving the blame to City Hall – fostering unrealistic hostilities – when it belongs on the shoulders of arrogant and thoughtless drivers.

*• AASHTO A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (Green Book)
• ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)
• Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)
• Applicable State-specific documentation, such as State statutes and laws governing pedestrian and motorist responsibilities
Best Practices
• FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access, Part I, A Review of Existing Guidelines
• FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access Part II, Best Practices Guide
FHWA Accessible Sidewalks and Street Crossings – An Informational Guide (FHWA- SA-03-019)
• AASHTO Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities
• AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities These documents and tools provide valuable information about potential countermeasures that can mitigate pedestrian safety concerns for an audited roadway or facility.
• MnDOT Bikeway Facility Design Manual
• A Guide for Reducing Collisions Involving Pedestrians (NCHRP Report 500)
• Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations (HRT-04-100)
• How to Develop a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (FHWA-SA-05-12)
• Improving Pedestrian Safety at Unsignalized Crossings (NCHRP Report 562)


Photos Courtesy of Alicia Wilkinson

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About the Author

Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.

11 Responses to Proceed With Caution: Guerrilla Crosswalks in Perspective

  1. Dave says:

    Vehicle operators are the problem.

    No, not really. And if you’d paid any attention to the misinformation being spattered about in the TNT’s comment threads, you would know this.

    Oh, wait. No need to look at the TNT’s comments. We have a fine example right here:

    Pedestrians always have the right of way in public roads.

    FALSE. And therein lies the root of the issue. Pedestrians do NOT always have the right of way.

    This is the kind of wishful thinking that gets people killed. You should know better.

  2. sweet pea says:

    well stated. Tacoma should change its city motto to “Turn Signals Optional”. the reality is that Tacoma drivers are fucking awful. if i wasn’t fleet of foot, i would now be dead. my main problem with the vigilante crosswalks is that they were ugly. i realize they were done in haste, but i still have to pass buy their poorly-painted sidewalk ramps on Division and St Helens multiple times a day. while i almost get hit at that intersection, no lie, once a week, i don’t want to walk on a juvenile art project either. unless it’s painted by kittens.

  3. pedestrian in proctor says:

    I live in what many consider to be a very nice neighborhood in Tacoma. In this past year I have had the privilege of using three (and sometimes four) very nicely painted, city-approved crosswalks twice a day on a daily (Monday-Friday) basis with my two young children and dog in tow. Two crosswalks are controlled by a traffic light with a numbered crosswalk countdown light; one has one of those handy, push button, flashing light alerts; one is a four way stop and three have the usual painted white bars .

    We don’t typically dress in dark colors, camouflage or asphalt colored clothing. My dog is on the small side, but I think her bright pink leash and collar make up for her short stature. My kids are tall for their ages, and I like to think we make a large, visible group.

    All that said, my group of three humans and one dog have been nearly hit THREE times in this past school year using these crosswalks. Each time was such a close shave I could have reached out and slapped the cars involved (if I hadn’t been yelling/shaking/freaked out, I would have). Each time we were holding hands, looking both ways and attempting to make eye contact with all drivers in the area.

    We are overly vigilant about this, and for good reason. Each time involved a driver who simply seemed to have not factored in the concept of pedestrians whatsoever: attempting to pull a quick left turn while dodging between lines of traffic; a quick right at a red light; a zoom through a four way stop on her way to her shift at a salon one block away.

    I absolutely agree, based on my experience, that the problem does not lie with either the city or the (lack of) crosswalks, but with the drivers. Crosswalks are great in theory, but, ultimately, I wish there were a better campaign in the works to simply remind drivers that pedestrians exist. I don’t know if it matters how many brightly painted and flashing crosswalks there are (city approved or not) if drivers are not taking the responsibility upon themselves to start paying attention.

  4. Mike Fitz Mike Fitz says:

    Something to keep in mind in all this, is that Tacoma wasn’t built for cars, it was built for streetcars. I fear for pedestrians walking anywhere in this neighborhood. Drivers should be especially cautious, but they face a lot of confusion with the hills and blind spots.

  5. PCHILL says:

    Everyone should check out what Portland, Chicago and St. Paul are doing. Got to These are not crosswalks, but it shows that the public can go in the middle of the street and paint!!! Even little kids. The city of Tacoma needs to become a real partner and leave their engineers and attorneys curbside and watch what people can do.

  6. ZeeCee says:

    Since we’re spreading the blame around so evenly, I’d like to suggest that drivers might be induced to pay closer attention if police actually made some effort to protect and serve bikers and pedestrians.
    I’ve seen — first-hand — a police cruiser immediately following a driver that refused to stop (and nearly hit) a pedestrian crossing an unmarked crosswalk. The cop did nothing at all.
    Worse: I have been hit by a car, and the 911 dispatcher wouldn’t send a cruiser, because I wasn’t seriously hurt.

    Anyway, to your points: I disagree; the onus is on the city to stop using policies and procedures as an excuse to persist in petulantly dragging its feet. The moment people started painting their own crosswalks should have been treated like a wake-up call.

  7. RR Anderson says:

    what about the city owned and maintained crosswalk paint that looks like it has been been ground off, but are just in really really shitty condition?

  8. Joshua says:

    Dan Rahe, Thank you for your contribution to the conversation. Blogs are a good way of communicating ideas, however describing things you don’t understand as “stupid” doesn’t help progress the development of this fine city.

    Your observations are usually much more insightful. Please continue to raise the level of rhetoric for the benefit of the community as a whole.

    • Dan Rahe says:

      I’m glad you’ve found me to be occasionally insightful. I try to be useful.
      I cannot quite apologize for the use of the word “stupid,” because i chose that word knowing what it engenders.
      I don’t like for anyone to be disappointed in me, but I am rather used to people disagreeing with me by now.
      My hope was to be provocative and interrupt the cycle of smug (and oh are they smug), reflexive responses to the pedestrian issue.
      An informed debate never holds things back. I have yet to see anyone lay out a critical response to my piece, beyond the insinuation that I simply don’t understand pedestrian safety. Clearly, that’s not the case. I just don’t agree with the approach of many pedestrian activists, because they so infrequently influence real policy.
      Using the word “Stupid” once in that argument didn’t seem like much of a travesty, and anyone who had a quarrel with it probably wasn’t going to keep reading my work anyway.

      With sincere thanks,

      frequently incorrect Dan

  9. Bill says:


    I find it hard to argue with your key points. As you’ve stated, there’s not a city on earth, at least in the first world, that would let rouge crosswalks and bike lanes stay on the streets. The expense of cleaning up these crosswalks ($1000 or more a shot) is not helpful on an already taxed city government budget.

    I must also agree with Joshua however that your combative tone limits forward movement in the conversation. What I find intriguing is that you yourself are personally invested in increasing pedestrian safety, with you yourself being hit by a car. You obviously recognize the need for more conversation around the issue. Is not conversation in a public forum like this the only way we will begin to influence the “thoughtless” drivers you believe are the true culprits of the problem? I mean, would you have written an article on the issue had these rouge crosswalks not been written.

    Let’s say this conversation does little to influence policy with our City of Tacoma government, which is debatable since the city issued an invitation for a citizen counsel on the matter several weeks after the first rouge crosswalks were painted. But again, assuming that it does not change legislation, did these rouge crosswalks not bring the issue into the cultural forefront, influencing the very drivers you want to change? I also wonder why you did not focus your article more on creative solutions instead of insulting the people who, while I disagree with their tactics, are responsible for us having this needed conversation.


    • Dan Rahe says:


      Your logic is sound, and your criticism is appreciated. There are some writers with enough talent and clear goodwill (Dan Savage, for instance) who can get away with using insulting or dismissive humor to make a point. I’m not one of those writers, but have a tendency at times to take excessive liberties. If, at times, my stylistic sensibilities obscure or defeat the value of the content, I have in some respects failed some readers.

      I too wish that i had explored some solutions… I primarily focused on trying to change the conversation that seemed to be occurring. Pointing fingers at the City was going to get us nowhere, and i wanted to explain why. Part of me wanted to make it a little embarrassing to even use that line of reasoning again, which is where the combativeness came from. Also, I find hyperbole to be funny, while forgetting that perhaps my sense of humor only amuses me. Or perhaps that I haven’t figured out how to translate it. But worse, it is an ethical failure on my part to identify a problem in such starks terms without contributing to a solution.

      Thanks for the teachable moment,


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