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St. Louis paints colorful crosswalks on the Hill. But could they be a hazard?

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Residents enjoying  newly painted red, white and green crosswalks on The Hill

Pedestrians use the newly painted crosswalks on Sept. 3 at the intersection of Wilson Avenue and Edward Street in St. Louis. The city recently unveiled new crosswalks painted with the red, white and green, celebrating its rich Italian heritage on the Hill.

ST. LOUIS — The city is celebrating its rich Italian heritage on the Hill — and bucking federal guidelines and its own past practices to do it.

St. Louis recently unveiled new crosswalks painted with the red, white and green pattern of the Italian flag, as well as a larger recreation of the banner in the middle of the intersection of Wilson and Marconi avenues.

City officials said it would be both an eye-catching homage and way to slow traffic and keep pedestrians safe.

The Federal Highway Administration has generally taken a different view of such projects. Officials there have for years warned that deviating from the standard look can lead to distractions for drivers and pedestrians.

Designs could distract from the outer white lines that show a pedestrian where the crosswalk is, the rationale goes. A pedestrian might stop in the middle of the street to admire attention-grabbing work.

“Crosswalk art is actually contrary to the goal of increased safety,” an agency official wrote in a 2013 memo.

Back in 2016, the city learned about the guidelines and took a different approach. It banned new artwork and said it would let existing examples, such as a rainbow in the Grove and fleur-de-lis at Tower Grove and Magnolia avenues, fade away.

“It’s probably an ultra-conservative approach when it comes to safety, which is fine,” said Jamie Wilson, then the city’s bike/pedestrian coordinator.

But in the years since, other cities have been painting away. Seattle installed dozens of crosswalks with rainbow stripes and other geometric designs and started encouraging residents to submit their own ideas for new ones. Buffalo installed crosswalks that looked like piano keys. Officials in Ames, Iowa, painted crosswalks with the colors of the gay, nonbinary and transgender pride flags before an annual LGBTQ pride festival in 2019.

And earlier this year, Bloomberg Philanthropies released a study of colorful crosswalks in East Coast cities that suggested they could help limit crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists.

“What we know now,” said St. Louis city spokesman Nick Dunne, “is that brightly colored crosswalks actually do help.”

The highway administration’s standards could also change. The agency is working on an update to its rulebook and reviewing more than 35,000 public comments. But current standards remain in place while that process runs its course.

Meanwhile, Alderman Joe Vollmer said people in the Hill neighborhood he represents are enjoying the new crosswalks. Drivers are stopping to get a better look, he said. And pedestrians like what they’re seeing, too.

On Friday afternoon, Darien Camie, of Kirkwood, pulled out his phone to take a picture before heading into Milo’s Bocce Garden.

He said he’d heard about the questions about federal guidelines but didn’t pay them much mind.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said.

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Austin Huguelet is the Post-Dispatch's City Hall reporter. He previously covered business for the Post-Dispatch and state politics for the Springfield News-Leader.

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