Iceland is a place of such dramatic, otherworldly beauty that many visitors have a hard time believing their very own eyes. Over the past several years, the island-bound Nordic nation has emerged, for better or worse, as the world’s preeminent blink twice and rub-your-peepers-to-make-sure-you’re-not-hallucinating destination. Double takes, audible gasps, and veering rental cars off of roads while gawking are all par for the course.
It’s that last reaction — distracted driving while speeding to get to the next awe-inspiring site — that’s problematic. To address this, Ísafjörður, a lively fishing and tourism hub in northwest Iceland’s far-flung Westfjords region, has embraced a novel approach to improving traffic safety: fighting rubberneck-inducing fire with rubberneck-inducing fire.
Dreamt up by town environmental commissioner Ralf Trylla and executed by local pavement marking company GÍH Vegamálun, a traditional, striped crosswalk in the center of town has been transformed into a pedestrian right-of-way that appears to be hovering directly above the asphalt.
To be clear, this shifting 3-D optical illusion doubling as a run-of-the-mill crosswalk is a distraction (and disorienting, to boot). However, the town is confident it will slow traffic, if not bring it to a complete stop, without freaking out too many overwhelmed out-of-towners already dazed by the unreal-looking natural scenery of the Westfjords.
Speaking to Quartz, Trylla notes that Ísafjörður’s new mind-bending artwork-cum-crosswalk sprung from the need for improved road safety without resorting to the installation of speed bumps, which, according to a 2016 study conducted by the U.K. National Institute for Health, can lead to motorist back pain and increased levels of air pollution. “I was looking for other possibilities and different solutions to slow traffic other than regular speed bumps,” he explains.
Located on a one-way street in a residential part of town, the intersection in question has never experienced any significant accidents or been deemed particularly dangerous. This makes it difficult to decipher whether or not the floating 3-D crosswalk has improved safety. But as Trylla tells Quartz, he has noticed a difference: “What is clear so far is that it has received a lot of attention and people are for sure driving differently over this crossing, even if they’re eventually getting used to seeing it. So in that way, I would say that it’s a success so far.”
Per Iceland Magazine, only “a couple of weeks” passed between Trylla coming up with the idea and the town securing all the necessarily permits to commence with it.
Ísafjörður joins ranks of cities with singular pedestrian crossings
While it has garnered a significant amount of attention, Ísafjörður’s nifty new crosswalk is not the first of its kind.
A similar 3-D crossing painted across an intersection in the Indian capital of New Delhi reportedly inspired Tyrlla to experiment with one in his own town. Tbilisi, Georgia, and a handful of Chinese cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Changsha, and Yulin, in the Shaanxi province, have floating zebra crossings as well — all aim to slow traffic, increase pedestrian safety and add a little visual oomph to humdrum streetscapes. And while they haven’t necessarily gone the levitating stripes route, other cities have gussied up crosswalks in the name of protecting pedestrians including Warsaw (piano keys), Baltimore (hopscotch), Seattle (rainbow flags) and Rotterdam (a full-on work of "tactical street art.")
Iceland’s new headline-grabbing pedestrian crossing has made such a splash that Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel published an article stating that the city — or any Florida city, for that matter — will not be installing 3-D crosswalks at any point in the near future due to both state law and 2009 Federal Highway Administration regulations that prohibit painting sidewalks with anything but standard (read: non-floating) white lines.
According to Smart Growth America’s 2016 Dangerous by Design survey, eight of the 10 most dangerous-to-pedestrian-cities in the United States are located in Florida. (Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach ranks number 11, just ahead of Bakersfield, California, and Birmingham, Alabama.)
Back in Ísafjörður, officials in the remote town, which has a population of 2,600, plan to install more optical illusion crosswalks to further prevent motorists from barreling through intersections. The heavily Instagrammed inaugural crosswalk has become such a popular photo-op spot that Gautur Ívar Halldórsson, co-owner of GÍH Vegamálun, tells Quartz that there are potential plans to paint a 3-D zebra crossing that’s removed from the road but “still has a nice view of our town.” After all, the original crosswalk was implemented as a creative way to slow traffic by grabbing the attention of motorists, not necessarily draw large throngs of pedestrians into the middle of an active road.
Ísafjörður: come for the fishing charters, festivals and hikes in the tundra, stay for the crazy floating sidewalks.