Low-cost, Temporary Changes Make for a Safer and Friendlier Street in Provo, Utah

Strong Towns member Austin Taylor wrote to us with this story from Provo, Utah, where residents rallied in response to tragedy by doing a little tactical urbanism, demonstrating how much safer and more pleasant the city’s streets could be if they weren’t designed to encourage high-speed traffic. As always, we’re proud to showcase the great work of Strong Citizens like Austin. –Strong Towns staff.

Just one year ago, tragedy struck. Caleb Lane—a happy and friendly 15-year old resident of Provo—was killed while walking across the street from our city’s recreation center.

This death opened my eyes to how far we have to go until our streets are truly safe. With just two car lanes, two bike lanes, and a speed limit of 25mph, the street Caleb was killed on (500 N) didn’t jump out to me as inherently unsafe; it’s not a stroad death trap we Strong Citizens have learned to hate. However, the standard painted crosswalk proved to be not enough to keep children safe as they crossed to and from our popular and family-friendly rec center. I marched with a big group of friends and neighbors to demonstrate this point.

Despite what doubters told us along the way, nobody crashed their cars, nobody died, and nobody was sued. It was a beautiful glimpse of how good the street could be with just a little investment.

Thankfully our strong mayor later got the city’s public works department to install a beautiful concrete pedestrian refuge with flashing lights that now keeps me protected from negligent drivers as I run to the rec center to work out each morning. I have no doubt this spot improvement is saving lives as thousands of people—including hundreds of children and senior citizens—walk to the rec center.

This tragic event spurred my local bike/walk advocacy group (which I am a part of) to plan our next tactical urbanism project in this area. We chose to temporarily redesign 300 West, a street that connects important places in the core of our city: the Amtrak and UTA transit stations, City Hall, Center Street, Provo Recreation Center, Utah Valley Hospital, the Provo River Trail, several bicycle corridors, and a handful of walkable and vibrant neighborhoods along the way. It’s a rare quiet street that connects to so many important things yet gets hardly any car traffic. We decided to highlight this street’s strengths by temporarily showing our neighbors how much more bikeable and walkable it could be.

Our plan was to paint temporary features in the road to #slowthecars, narrow pedestrian crossings, and encourage bike traffic. With approval from our city’s street engineers, we set out to put our plan into action on three blocks of this route. We chose curb extensions to narrow pedestrian crossings at each intersection, crosswalks to encourage safe crossing, a roundabout at one intersection to slow cars, and sharrows to encourage biking on the road. The city agreed to lend us “road closed” signs to block off that street as we painted it.

On the evening of Saturday, July 27, we painted these features in bright cornstarch paint and watched how people reacted. Despite what doubters told us along the way, nobody crashed their cars, nobody died, and nobody was sued. Instead, drivers drove around the roundabout. They slowed down at the curb extensions and drove around them. People sat on the benches we dropped onto the tree-lined park strip between the curb and sidewalk. It was a beautiful glimpse of how good the street could be with just a little investment.

Of course, the project was not without its pushback. We set posters throughout the 3-block section with a description of the project and pen and paper for people to write their thoughts. I didn’t think that opposition would be strong in this part of the city—with its mixed-use and multifamily projects—but I was wrong. People came out of the woodwork to write about how this project was a waste of our time, inconvenienced drivers, and would “bring the homeless problem into [their] neighborhood”. My personal favorite comment is one in childish scribble handwriting saying nothing more than “I hate this.” If you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to have to crack eggs along the way.

Just a few days later, we said goodbye to our beautiful redesign of 300 West as it washed away in a rainstorm. To us, the project was a wild success because it demonstrated how much safer and more inviting that street can be—even with just a little bit of paint. Although none of the engineers nor transportation board members from City Hall came to tour it as we invited them to, they saw our photos. Hopefully, they also see our vision for a safer street—one that can prevent deaths of citizens like Caleb Lane. And all it took was an open city government, about $275, and one night of work.

Austin Taylor

PS, if you have questions about planning your own tactical urbanism project, I highly suggest reading Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia. Also check out their materials guide for low-cost materials to create temporary road changes. I’ll be asking them to add cornstarch paint to the list. It’s non-toxic, extremely washable, and incredibly cheap. Lastly, comment with questions on this article or email me at 12tayloaush@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer them!

About the Author

Austin Taylor (LinkedIn | Email) is a Strong Citizen living and loving life in Provo, Utah. A bicycle commuter his entire adult life, Austin involves himself in several grassroots and government groups to increase walkability and bikeability in his region. In his free time, he enjoys raising chickens in his backyard, bike touring, and fly fishing.