When Chris Visions began painting a ground mural in Richmond, he had no idea his street art might help save lives.
The overall changes were fairly small but still significant in the community, and part of a larger study in various cities that showed far fewer crashes at the art intersections compared with the prior year.
While the initial purpose of the asphalt painting was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jackson Ward, it came with an unexpected benefit: The mural has encouraged pedestrians and motorists to “slow down and take safety into consideration,” said Visions, 37, a local comic book artist and muralist.
The mural — which was created with a group of art students from a local arts nonprofit — is one of three new crosswalk art projects in Richmond, all part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Asphalt Art Initiative. The nonprofit has funded 42 street murals in 41 cities across the country since 2019, with grants of up to $25,000.
As part of the project, Bloomberg Philanthropies partnered with Sam Schwartz Engineering, a consulting firm, to explore what effect the street art was having on safety. The results of the study, published in April, showed a drop in the number of collisions in areas with art.
The study examined the crash history at 17 asphalt art sites across the country that have a minimum of two years of crash data. It found 83 fewer crashes at the analyzed intersections — more than a 50 percent decrease compared with data from before the crosswalks were painted.
Video footage of five recently installed art sites across the country was also used to gather information in the study. Following installations, there was a 27 percent rise in the rate of motorists yielding to pedestrians, and a 38 percent decline in pedestrians crossing against the walk signal.
Crosswalk art “can improve behavior behind the wheel and it can protect the most vulnerable people on the road,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a principal for Bloomberg Associates and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.
According to Bloomberg Philanthropies, street art has been associated with slower vehicle speeds, which reduces the risk of potential conflicts and crashes. At an intersection in Kansas City, for instance, the average vehicle speed went from about 25 mph before a mural was placed, to just under 14 mph after.
The study aimed to determine whether brightly colored artwork would distract drivers, and found that, in fact, ground murals increase visibility of crosswalks, causing motorists to be more cautious and alert.
“Not only will these projects do no harm, they can actually prevent harm from happening in the first place,” Sadik-Khan explained, adding that aside from the study, there is limited information on the safety impact of street art. “This data shows that safer, sustainable streets don’t need to cost millions of dollars.”
Road deaths in the United States have surged more than 10 percent last year compared with the year before, marking the highest number of fatalities in 16 years. Last year, 42,915 people were killed on roads.
Sadik-Khan said she hopes the study, while small, will help inform policymakers about the benefits of crosswalk art, particularly as the Federal Highway Administration updates its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for the first time in more than 10 years.
She also said she wants the study to inspire local communities to come together to paint their streets with color. Bloomberg Philanthropies published a free Asphalt Art Guide, filled with tips and tricks for creating successful roadway redesigns.
“That’s what the Asphalt Art Initiative is all about; turning streets into canvases and collecting concrete data,” she said.
Mike Flynn, the principal and national director of transportation and planning at Sam Schwartz, said that in the wake of increased deaths on the road, finding solutions is more important than ever.
“We need to try whatever is going to work,” said Flynn, who worked on the Asphalt Art Safety Study.
“The fact that the overall findings were so positive was eye-opening,” Flynn said, adding that more research is still needed to better understand the impact of asphalt art. “This can be a really important safety tool.”
Plus, he said, making street murals has additional advantages not measured in the safety study.
“It offers other benefits such as community-building and providing a venue for local artists,” Flynn said.
Mensah Bey, a painter and muralist in Norfolk, was elated at the opportunity to design an asphalt art project on Bland Street in the Norview neighborhood. The 100-foot mural is painted with bright shades of blue and red, and West African symbols of togetherness, abundance and unity.
“I wanted it to reflect the culture of the community and inspire them,” said Bey, 33, adding that he worked on the project during the peak of the pandemic, and hoped it would help reinvigorate residents and small businesses.
As the artist-in-residence for the city of Norfolk, Jason Akira Somma oversaw the project, which included two additional murals in the city. All three were placed in police patrol districts, with the goal of strengthening relations between residents and law enforcement.
Community members and police officers painted the murals together. The three murals are intended to engage local residents and make the area feel more lively and welcoming. The painting process brought the community together physically, and the finished pieces have added color and brightness to otherwise drab city streets.
“It created a sense of trust in the community,” said Akira Somma, adding that he also believes the installations have helped curb crime in the area. “Community engagement has shown to be incredibly effective for reducing crime.”
Given the success of the first two rounds of grants, Bloomberg Philanthropies is expanding the initiative to European cities with populations greater than 100,000.
“There’s a deep hunger for these types of projects in every city,” said Sadik-Khan, adding that many murals ultimately emerge as unique landmarks that promote community pride. “It’s exciting to see the demand.”
“It’s not just about painting roads,” she continued. “Streets are really the ultimate gallery. They are where art and life come alive.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the size of a ground mural in Norfolk. It is 100 feet. The article has been corrected.