Metropolis

The Pedestrians’ Revolt

Two shadowy collectives, fed up with cars, are taking matters into their own hands.

A GIF showing a lot before a crosswalk was painted, and then a picture of the lot with yellow crossing lines.
Would ya look at that. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Crosswalk Collective L.A./Twitter.

I often wonder, while dodging cars and risking my life—what will be the moment I snap? Maybe it’ll be that pickup truck that nearly pancakes me while taking a careless right. Perhaps it’ll be this car honking at me for the crime of walking across the street. Or maybe it’ll be the next near-miss as I cross my own road and a commuter speeds over the hill and straight toward me.

I dream of the day I rise up. I’ll scatter nails in the road. I’ll kick that passing pickup (and then run like hell). I’ll erect barricades in the street and sing that song from Les Mis. Surely it’ll happen eventually, right? I can’t ignore the indignity that comes with walking in America’s auto-optimized killing fields forever, can I?

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Well, I sure have so far. Yes, I sign petitions and tweet my anger and attend the occasional planning meeting. I’ve even emailed the head of my city’s Vision Zero program to ask about lowering the speed limit on my street, where car after car rockets through my residential neighborhood at 40 miles per hour. (She says they’re working on it.) But I don’t really take direct action, not the kind that feels like it really makes a difference. I’ve yet to actually fight.

Maybe that’s why I’ve so enjoyed, this spring, stories of people who actually do.

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Since February, the members of the Crosswalk Collective have been painting crosswalks at intersections in residential neighborhoods around Los Angeles. Each new crosswalk represents a small point of contention in the battle between automobiles and human beings on foot, in a place where the city hasn’t taken action and so those human beings must. They are handmade, DIY infrastructure-as-protest. I love them.

In an email interview, a representative of the group—who wished to remain anonymous—said that there was no precipitating event for the guerrilla actions. “It was just the accumulation of years of watching the city not take action while so many pedestrians and cyclists were being injured and killed,” they wrote. Members of the group have long petitioned the city for safety improvements through the traditional channels: writing your council member, attending planning meetings, emailing the Department of Transportation. “We saw firsthand the excuses and delays or even just non-responsiveness for months or years after requests had been made,” they wrote. Using large plastic stencils and quick-dry road paint, the group started taking action—first at intersections they felt were unsafe, but soon in locations proposed by community members through a tip line.

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While they’re painting, members of the collective wear reflective vests and hard hats, and block off half a street at a time with traffic cones and barricades. They’re not exactly posing as city employees, but I’m sure they don’t mind if someone makes that mistake. Painting a single crosswalk takes between 90 minutes and two hours, including time for the paint to dry, which means an entire intersection might be an all-day or multiday project. That leaves a big window in which to get caught, and indeed, earlier this spring, the collective was painting an intersection by a school when the police—tipped off, they say, by the Transportation Department—busted them. Each collective member was issued a $250 citation and warned that future citations would double to $500 and then $1,000.

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Two activists in yellow suits painting a crosswalk at an intersection
Members of the Crosswalk Collective paint a crosswalk in Los Angeles. Crosswalk Collective L.A.
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This was unsurprising but dispiriting. So is the fact that Los Angeles, in response to these acts of citizen road improvement, dispatches crews to scrub out the crosswalks the collective paints, in what might be the public works equivalent of whack-a-mole. In response to questions, Colin Sweeney, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, wrote: “Unauthorized street installations are illegal and the city can be held liable if they are left in place. Any unauthorized alteration to the street will be removed and those responsible may be subject to a fine and billed for the cost of removal.”

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Sweeney pointed to the 1,400 crosswalks the department improved or installed in 2021 and said the department uses a data-driven system “to determine areas of greatest need to prioritize limited resources where they can make the most impact.” According to him, the locations where the collective has painted crosswalks “have no history of severe or fatal collisions nor a history of requests for crosswalks.” It seems apparent to me that it would be better to paint crosswalks before a severe or fatal collision, and the collective takes a dim view of the city’s insistence that residents request safety improvements from LADOT directly: “No one should have to request a crosswalk any more than they should have to request clean air.”

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The city doesn’t have to treat the crosswalk installers as miscreants. In 2013, a group of Seattleites glued some pylons to the street to jerry-rig a protected bike lane on a steep stretch of road near an I-5 entrance ramp. Rather than destroying the pylons out of pique, the city’s traffic engineer at the time, Dongho Chang, responded with a note to the activists thanking them: “I am truly appreciative that you care enough to take time, money, and risk to send your message to me and my staff.” A few months later, the SDOT installed a permanent protected bike lane on the road.

Actions like the DIY crosswalks “really show that government isn’t working,” said Chang, who now works for Washington state but has a lot to say about these issues in his own personal capacity: “It isn’t responsive. It shows a gap.” It’s clear, Chang said, that pedestrian safety is incredibly important to communities, but it’s difficult for their concerns to break through many cities’ all-encompassing bias toward cars: “Some measurable action needs to be taken. People cross locations every day, and sometimes small things can have a huge impact on how people feel about using their community streets.”

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In crafting his response to the guerrilla bike lane in 2013, Chang said, he was struck by the organizers’ intentions: “Someone took the time to procure the material and install it, to demonstrate that what we were putting out could be so much better. You need to take the sincerity of that action seriously.” Los Angeles’ response—removing the crosswalks, issuing citations to the painters—does not take the sincerity of their actions seriously. It feels like the wrong move, an example of a city disregarding the very clearly expressed needs of its citizens. As the representative of the collective put it, “They’d rather use their limited resources to preserve their ‘authority’ and ensure the motorist experience is unchanged, rather than ensure pedestrian safety.”

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It seems clear the collective’s work is in its early days. The representative I spoke to didn’t want to publicize how many intersections the collective has crosswalked. “We don’t want the city to go out looking for more to remove,” they said. “We can say that the city has removed six crosswalks we’ve painted but some remain”—including two bright yellow crosswalks painted, the collective said, at the request of an elementary school in Hollywood. I’m curious whether the city will scrub them off.

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Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a group called Tyre Extinguishers isn’t just trying to get drivers to stop at intersections. It’s trying to get drivers to stop, period—at least, drivers of SUVs. In an initial overnight action in March, the group said, it deflated the tires of SUVs in 13 U.K. cities. Since then it’s claimed thousands of tires flattened in cities around the country (and as far afield as New Zealand). The group’s aim? “To make it impossible to own a huge polluting SUV in the world’s urban areas.”

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It turns out it’s quite easy to deflate a car’s tire in moments. All it takes is a dried lentil. As the group explains, dropping a lentil (or any other small, hard object) inside a tire’s valve cap and then screwing it back on will cause the tire to slowly deflate.

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When a group member deflates a tire, they tuck a leaflet under the affected car’s windshield wipers. “You’ll be angry,” the leaflet reads, “but don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s your car.” The leaflet goes on to spell out the damage SUVs do to the world’s climate and points out that SUVs are more likely than smaller cars to kill people in collisions. In short: “Driving around urban areas in your massive vehicle has huge consequences for others.”

The response to the Tyre Extinguishers has been predictably overheated. A Brighton official called for the organization behind these “criminal acts” to be banned from social media, while the police keep making announcements that “enquiries are ongoing” into the “reckless and potentially dangerous” deflating of tires. And the hate mail—well, it’s delicious.

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There’s clearly a difference between painting a crosswalk at a community’s request and tampering with another person’s private property. But it’s hard for me to get worked up about these minor yet heroic acts of vandalism. Mostly, I find myself engaged and excited by the cloak-and-dagger aspects of both these groups. The anonymous email accounts, the secrecy, the mild whiff of danger. I love imagining Crosswalk Collective members in reflective vests anxiously waiting for the paint to dry, hoping no one blows their cover. Or Tyre Extinguishers fanning out across their city in pairs under cover of night, one smoothly unscrewing the valve cap on a tire, the other keeping lookout. The U.K. group said it doesn’t know of any activists who’ve been confronted by car owners or nabbed by the police. “If the cops want to catch us, they’ll have to post a police officer in front of every SUV in the country, 24/7,” wrote a representative in an email. “We don’t think they will.”

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But even more than the intrigue, I love the simplicity. What is a crosswalk but a set of lines on the street that anyone could paint? What is an SUV but a large object that anyone could immobilize? Why do we have to wait for governments to do something to make us safer, when there are actions we can take ourselves? “We have been asking politely for decades for climate action, safe streets, clean air,” noted the representative of the Tyre Extinguishers. “There comes a point where you have to try something else. So we take action to defend ourselves because politicians won’t.” That last line is remarkably similar to what the Crosswalk Collective posts on Twitter alongside photos of each new crosswalk: “The city doesn’t keep us safe, so we keep us safe.”

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For years, this kind of guerrilla response to urban traffic was the province of cyclists. From makeshift memorials to social “critical mass” rides to street stencils to fake bike lanes, it was cyclists who were most willing to become scofflaws in service of safety. The Crosswalk Collective and Tyre Extinguishers represent something new, said Jessie Singer, a journalist and author of There Are No Accidents, a recent book about the way America’s roads, and other dangerous systems, avoid blame for the “accidents” they cause. “What’s interesting about these dual movements is that they’re pretty pedestrian-focused,” she pointed out. “There’s always been outrage from the cyclist community. This is an interesting shift.”

But you don’t need to be a cyclist to be outraged about the way cars dominate American spaces. “Pedestrians are more at risk than ever,” said Singer. “They feel it on the streets—they’re constantly encountering these massive SUVs and light trucks.” And the pandemic, which took drivers off the roads, saw more people stick closer to home yet not feel any safer. “You weren’t going to work, but you were walking around your neighborhood,” Singer said. And everywhere, pedestrian fatalities continued to rise.

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Local danger inspires local action. “Crossing the street here in Los Angeles is a harrowing experience,” wrote the representative of the Crosswalk Collective, explaining what spurred them into picking up their paint rollers. “Everything is hostile to pedestrians.”

Of course, a local solution doesn’t benefit everyone equally. “These actions are limited to wealthy cities, quite far from each other,” pointed out Singer. “Traffic fatalities don’t fall evenly in this country.” (Like all structural ills in America, they disproportionately affect people of color.) “I love that these people are pushing the conversation forward, but without federal action, huge numbers of people remain unprotected.” Singer pointed specifically to the New Car Assessment Program, which has a chance to take into account for the first time what effect different sizes of cars have on pedestrians in collisions.

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Despite her hope that organizations and individuals also work toward structural and regulatory change, though, Singer said that, like me, she absolutely loves stories like these: “If you go out in your city and paint a crosswalk and that’s going to shame them into making that intersection safer, I think that’s a damn miracle.”

Do these kinds of efforts actually work? I think it depends what you mean by “working.” Each activist group is only a few months in, but there is some evidence that this kind of direct action affects both policymaking and consumer choice. Tyre Extinguishers bragged that, in addition to the hate mail, they’ve received emails from city residents asking whether certain models of cars qualify as SUVs, for the purpose of avoiding having their tires deflated. And a recent piece in the Telegraph asked, “If I buy an SUV will it be vandalized by climate protesters?” (“Yes. Yes it will.”) The Crosswalk Collective pointed out that Los Angeles just happened to finally announce a Slow Streets initiative in the very neighborhoods where they’ve been painting, though the city insists the program has been in the works for months. But even that step didn’t respond precisely to the needs expressed by guerrilla action: The city scrubbed the collective’s crosswalks at one intersection in order to install a car-friendly traffic circle—without, the collective noted, any additional pedestrian infrastructure.

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But I think these kinds of efforts also “work” in another sense. Each crosswalk that the city doesn’t notice right away, which lasts long enough for citizens to use it, works. Every SUV taken off the road, even for a day, makes its city a better place to walk around. There’s real power in this kind of incremental, undercover action, which might not even register as protest to those who benefit from it. The schoolchild who crosses safely at a new crosswalk, or the resident of London whose daily walk is a tiny bit more peaceful, grows acclimated to the new state of affairs in her home. And that changes, forever, her expectation of what city life can be like.

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And there’s one more way that this kind of direct action works. It works on people like me, the people who have long felt frustrated by the state of things but have been too nervous to take action outside the system. And these organizations are ready for people like me. Both are operating as open-source initiatives, offering instructions, downloadable flyers, and advice to help copycats take back their cities’ streets as well. I’m still figuring out exactly what kind of fighter I’m willing to be. But I understand, a little bit better than before, that I don’t simply have to accept a city ruled by cars, a city that puts pedestrians last. Creativity and fearlessness can create actual change.

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