FORWARD: Issue #2: Transportation


For Smart Growth America's Arts & Transportation Rapid Response initiative, artist Tosha Stimage worked with San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA, to pilot a community-informed intervention strategy to deconstruct racial prejudices worsened by COVID-19, and normalize the culture of mask wearing on transit. Photo courtesy Smart Growth America.

To help people make their way through space, cities enlisted designers and artists to address COVID-19 challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed so many elements of daily life, including how we move around. Nearly every aspect of transportation was impacted: commuter traffic and air travel nearly vanished in the early days of the pandemic, bicycle shops were sold out across the country as people sought new ways to recreate and travel, air quality benefited from the reduction in cars on the road, and cities experimented with allowing people to use roadways to social distance from one another, since most sidewalks aren’t even six feet wide.

Once we moved beyond our fear of surfaces and fomites and developed a better understanding of COVID-19’s transmission, it became clear that managing the pandemic required a thorough understanding of our relationship to space and how we communicate. Transit agencies began to think about how to redesign their buses and trains to keep operators and riders at least six feet apart, how to communicate the benefits of wearing masks, and how to let people get some fresh air safely, without crowding parks and sidewalks.

To address these challenges, many cities enlisted designers and artists, who used creative tactics to promote adherence to mask and social distancing requirements, to encourage riders to return to transit, and to help people make their way through space under rapidly changing rules.

Scroll down to read about a program designed to approach these unique challenges with creative solutions, partnering five artists with five agencies.

Arts & Transportation Rapid Response initiative

Artists partner with agencies to address COVID-19’s impact on transportation

Location: five cities across the United States Partners: Smart Growth America, Forecast Public Art

For the first round of Smart Growth America's Arts & Transportation Rapid Response initiative, five artists worked in tandem with five local transportation agencies to design and implement projects that address pandemic-related transportation challenges and systemic inequities. Illustration courtesy Smart Growth America.

In the fall of 2020, Smart Growth America, in partnership with Forecast and with funding from the Kresge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, responded to COVID-19’s severe impact on transportation systems by launching the Arts & Transportation Rapid Response initiative. The initiative provided funding to partner with artists on addressing a COVID-related transportation challenge. With nearly 200 transportation agencies responding to this competitive funding program, the need for creative assistance was quickly evident.

The team selected five transportation agencies and five artists for the initiative. Below are their stories.


Artist Jonathan Brumfield's project included planting vegetables in planter barricades, with residents who live near the Slow Streets intersection. Photo by Kahlim Davis, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Fitting COVID-19 Transportation Modifications into Their Communities in Oakland Artist + Agency: Jonathan Brumfield + City of Oakland, Oakland, CA

Like many cities, Oakland launched a Slow Streets program in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide space for people to safely recreate in their own neighborhoods rather than crowding trails and parks. The Slow Streets program started with closing more than 20 miles of streets to motor vehicles, except for non-through traffic, and has since grown to include streets in all corners of the city.

Appropriately, Oakland’s Slow Streets program was widespread and launched quickly. While it was well received in many neighborhoods, residents of East Oakland, an historically Black community that has dealt with years of disinvestment, rejected the program and complained that the designation of Slow Streets was confusing and disconnected from community needs. Many residents of East Oakland were deemed “essential workers” and continued to need to commute by car to work, so the Slow Streets became an annoyance rather than an asset. Oakland had used construction barricades to mark the Slow Streets, which reminded East Oaklanders of the years of construction they had just endured for a new Bus Rapid Transit project, further exacerbating their rejection of the program.

The unveiling of the new planter barricades with the Mayor of Oakland in early October 2020. Brumfield also designed and created new Slow Streets signs. Photo by Kahlim Davis, courtesy Smart Growth America.

In an attempt to move beyond the “one size fits all” approach first used to roll out the Slow Streets program, the city partnered with East Oakland–based artist Jonathan Brumfield to create new, culturally relevant, and aesthetically pleasing barricades for some of the Slow Streets in East Oakland.

As an East Oakland resident, Brumfield was already aware of and shared some of his neighbors’ concerns with the program. He was also deeply aware of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BIPOC residents of his neighborhood. He began his project by connecting with those who lived on East Oakland’s Slow Streets, and quickly learned that there was an abundance of ideas for the barricades. Neighbors wanted the barricades to showcase East Oakland’s culture and also help with the neighborhood’s dangerous roads and lack of access to healthy food.

Brumfield designed a modular set of barricade planter boxes painted with silhouettes of Oaklanders walking, pushing strollers, rolling in wheelchairs, and riding scraper bikes. He incorporated Afrocentric imagery and bright paint along with words of hope, like “Heal” and “Grow.” A family living next to a slow street was hired to help build the planter barricades and plant vegetables.

“We came up with something that would benefit our community and feed our people.”

Brumfield celebrated the dual role these barricades now play: “We came up with something that would benefit our community and feed our people.” Likewise, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf celebrated the project as a step toward rebuilding relationships between the neighborhood and city administration: “This came out of community voice, and if there is one thing I know about my hometown of Oakland, it is that we celebrate, we heal, we express ourselves through art and also through food. This is a traffic-calming device that is both of these things. That is how we are as Oaklanders: we heal through our art, we heal through our dialogue with each other in deep community.”

Brumfield’s work has been well received so far, and his barricades have been requested by other communities in Oakland. The modular nature of the barricades means that they can be moved to meet the needs and wants of the neighborhoods in which they’re placed, an approach that could be adopted for all transportation projects.


Artist Naomi RaMona Schliesman and Jill Amundson, Associate Planner at West Central Initiative, use stencils to spray-paint footprints on a street in Henning, MN. Photo by Ne-Dah-Ness Rose Greene.

Helping Students Stay Safe on Their Way to School in Western Minnesota Artist + Agency: Naomi RaMona Schliesman + West Central Initiative, western Minnesota

In addition to disrupting people’s ability to use existing transportation infrastructure, COVID-19 also disrupted transportation agencies’ ability to plan for new improvements. Western Minnesota’s West Central Initiative (WCI), a regional planning agency that serves nine counties in rural western Minnesota, is responsible for helping to plan safe routes to school for rural students. WCI knew that their typical engagement strategy of in-person meetings wouldn’t work during the pandemic, so they quickly pivoted to create a new community engagement toolkit for use during safe routes to school planning and future planning efforts.

To create the toolkit, WCI partnered with Naomi RaMona Schliesman, a Fergus Falls, Minnesota–based artist who had previously worked with WCI.

Collecting information from outdoor, socially distanced visits to schools and from virtual meetings with students and staff, Schliesman created a multilingual toolkit comprised of stencils, play sculptures, youth-friendly traffic barricades, pennants, bicycle decals, and a set of anthropomorphic mask-wearing animals to educate students on the proper way to wear a mask.

An adult and young person apply paint to a play sculpture before using it to play a game. Photo by Ne-Dah-Ness Rose Greene.

Two young people follow the stenciled animal footprints in Henning, MN. Photo by Ne-Dah-Ness Rose Greene.

Schliesman’s Rainbow Friends characters “allow [WCI] to speak about equity issues in smaller communities more effectively.”
— Jill Amundson, WCI associate planner

These animal characters, billed by Schliesman as the Rainbow Friends, “allow [WCI] to speak about equity issues in smaller communities more effectively,” according to Jill Amundson, WCI’s associate planner. Since rural communities often have a small population to begin with, discussions of race, class, and ability can lead to the “othering” of minority community members. The Rainbow Friends provide an abstract way to talk about these issues—the bear, deer, duck, and frog characters are native to Minnesota while the elephant and kangaroo have just moved to the area from their distant homes, mirroring the reality of immigrants in the community.

The toolkit also includes DIY animal footprint paths, created by means of a bicycle wheel with animal footprint stencils attached; and pennants of the Rainbow Friends, which adorn the paths students are intended to use to get to school safety.

In the end, Schliesman’s toolkit provided a fun and safe way to engage youth in complex conversations about getting to school, immigration, and mask wearing. WCI plans to use the approach developed and tested by Schliesman for future engagement efforts during the pandemic and beyond.

Rainbow barricades alongside the busy highway near the public school in Ashby, MN, provide students with separation from vehicles and serve as a visual cue to drivers to slow down. Photo by Ne-Dah-Ness Rose Greene.


Artist Tosha Stimage worked with San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit to pilot a community-informed intervention strategy to deconstruct racial prejudices worsened by COVID-19, and normalize the culture of mask wearing on transit. Photo courtesy Smart Growth America.

Creating a Culturally Specific Mask-Wearing Campaign in the Bay Area Artist + Agency: Tosha Stimage + Bay Area Rapid Transit, San Francisco Bay Area, CA

While adherence to BART’s mask mandate has been generally good, many of BART’s Black, Brown, and Asian American riders reported either being harassed or worrying about how they might be perceived by their fellow riders. BART staff shared these concerns: BART Strategic Programs Manager Linton Johnson worried that his smile, which he referred to as his “secret weapon” for diffusing tense situations, wouldn’t be available to him while wearing a mask.

Seeking to create a safe and comfortable environment for all riders, free from any stigma around wearing masks, BART worked with Berkeley-based artist Tosha Stimage on a series of artistic interventions to encourage riders to wear masks.

These interventions included pop-up events in BART’s Civic Center station, posters installed on BART trains and in stations throughout the system, and a video broadcast via BART’s social media channels. The campaign grew out of the posters, which featured the long history of mask wearing in cultures across the world. Stimage created eight posters featuring different historic masks with information about each mask’s use and the culture that created it. The campaign, titled “We Been On,” asserted that “whether storytelling or celebrating culture, masks have always served a useful function. This time they can help us protect each other.”

Artist Tosha Stimage displays her artwork at one of the pop-ups at Civic Center station in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Cinque Mubarak, courtesy Smart Growth America.

“Whether storytelling or celebrating culture, masks have always served a useful function. This time they can help us protect each other.”
— Tosha Stimage

Artist Tosha Stimage speaks with transit riders at a pop-up at Civic Center station in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Maria J. Avila/BART, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Her pop-up events featured Stimage at an information booth, from which she distributed care packages with hand sanitizer, masks, and postcards featuring the same images and messages as her posters. Stimage thanked riders for wearing masks and suggested they use the postcards to communicate with loved ones they hadn’t been able to see during the pandemic.

Similar to the posters, Stimage’s video features people wearing masks in film and documentary clips set to a hip-hop beat.

The campaign’s friendly, human touch and its clever and joyful use of historic images have been well received by riders, and BART plans to build on the success of Stimage’s work.

BART employee installs new posters, designed by artist Tosha Stimage, onto trains. Photo by Cinque Mubarak, courtesy Smart Growth America.


Columns outside Bonneville Transit Center in Las Vegas feature signs encouraging people to stay two arms apart. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Messaging Rapidly Evolving Guidelines for Diverse Riders in Las Vegas Artist + Agency: Ashley Hairston Doughty + Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas, NV

Las Vegas emerged as one of the early hot spots of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the most visited and most tourism-dependent cities in the United States, Las Vegas suffered from both the health impacts of the pandemic and the economic impacts of having fewer visitors. Nevertheless, millions of tourists did continue to visit Vegas and frontline workers continued to commute to work during the pandemic.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC), Las Vegas’ transit system, provided bus rides to many of the tourists and workers. In order for Vegas’ economy to continue operating and for residents and visitors to stay safe, RTC absolutely needed to find a way to convince riders to wear masks and socially distance from one another. But with so many foreign tourists and workers who aren’t fluent in English, clear visual communication was key.

The RTC partnered with artist and graphic designer Ashley Hairston Doughty to create a communications campaign focused on their main transportation hub, the Bonneville Transit Center. Doughty drew her inspiration for the campaign from Vegas’ built and natural landmarks, selected her color palette from desert sunsets and Vegas’ famous neon lights, and decided on language for the signs by surveying riders about the instructions they would find most convincing.

“If the [signs] are a bit more friendly or a bit more sarcastic, people might be more willing to listen to them and remember them.”
— Ashley Hairston Doughty

People gather at the seating area outside of Bonneville Transit Center featuring a variety of new signage. Artist Ashley Hairston Doughty worked with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada to design and implement artwork and signage at this major transit hub—­serving frontline workers, residents, and tourists—to educate the public about social distancing and safe transit riding practices. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Based on these surveys and conversations with RTC staff, and working in collaboration with Carson City–based art consultant Mark Salinas, Doughty decided to avoid the confrontational tone used on many signs, assuming that “if the statements are a bit more friendly or a bit more sarcastic, people might be more willing to listen to them and remember them.” She created signs with a conversational, friendly, and catchy tone, printed them in English and Spanish on vinyl, and installed them throughout the Bonneville Transit Center. Fortunately, the concrete pavers used at Bonneville are approximately six feet wide, providing a clear visual reminder of the recommended distance to keep from other riders.

The colorful, playful signs form a cohesive set of messages across the waiting areas and transfer points of the Bonneville Transit Center. Rather than disappearing into the background and being completely ignored by riders, as is the case with typical signage, RTC staff have reported people making special trips to Bonneville to take selfies with the vinyl signs.

Artist Ashley Hairston Doughty sits on a concrete bench displaying new signage. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore, courtesy Smart Growth America.


Community recreation centers provide access to critical services such as food, employment resources, cooling centers, and other programming for vulnerable community members, many of whom are accessing these centers for the first time during the pandemic. Photo by Bre’Ann White, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Providing Directions and Dignity to Detroiters Artist + Agency: Ndubisi Okoye + Detroit Department of Public Works, Detroit, MI

In the early days of the pandemic, Detroit suffered from one of the highest mortality rates in the country. As was the case in so many cities, this blow to public health was paralleled by an economic blow as many Detroiters lost their sources of income and experienced poverty for the first time.

The city attempted to remedy these economic woes by providing resources at its recreation centers. Rec centers had already been used as warming centers in the winter and cooling centers in the summer. During the pandemic they also began providing free meals and other resources to Detroiters in need. However, due to its low-density sprawling neighborhoods and inadequate transit service, getting to rec centers is a challenge for many Detroiters, whose households are three times less likely to own a car than the national average. Many rec centers are located in large parks or within neighborhoods, far from bus stops on busier streets, complicating access even further.

Ndubisi Okoye worked with the Detroit Department of Public Works in Detroit, MI, to implement creative wayfinding to connect major bus stops to nearby community recreation centers. Photo by Bre’Ann White, courtesy Smart Growth America.

Okoye set out to create a “wayfinding system that could translate between cultures and could connect people to the resources they need.”

To help Detroiters in need find these rec centers, Detroit partnered with Ndubisi Okoye, an artist and Detroit native who grew up riding the city’s buses. Okoye set out to create a “wayfinding system that could translate between cultures and could connect people to the resources they need.” To accomplish this, he created a wayfinding pilot project for the Lasky Recreation Center. Okoye’s signs feature bold colors and graphics as well as welcoming messages in three languages (Bengali, Arabic, and English) to guide people from two bus stops to Lasky via a circuitous half-mile path through Jane Field. He supplemented the signs with matching arrows painted on the park’s sidewalks.

In the end, the Lasky Rec Center wayfinding provides clear instructions to find the rec center, while its professionally designed aesthetic provides a sense of dignity to Detroiters in need.


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FORWARD: Issue #2