Grad student’s ‘guerilla’ signs encourage residents to walk Raleigh

Staff writerFebruary 22, 2012 

Walk Raleigh founder Matt Tomasulo hopes the signs will encourage more people to walk instead of drive.

BY CHELSEA KELLNER - CKELLNER@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

Too often on his walks through Raleigh, Matt Tomasulo found himself the only pedestrian on the sidewalk – so he hatched a plan.

With a few friends, he printed and posted signs at major Raleigh intersections on Jan. 17 telling pedestrians the walk-time to popular destinations such as Chavis Park and Glenwood South.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Tomasulo’s signs have sparked city interest in expanding the effort and nabbed international attention. It’s not what Tomasulo was expecting, but he’s excited about its potential.

“We want to have people talk about these topics through fun, interactive tools that lead to a more engaged community,” Tomasulo said.

The signs are simple: an arrow, a destination and the time it takes to walk there, plus a special scan code that will pull up online directions on your smart phone. They are zip-tied to light posts and telephone poles on the corner of Hargett and Wilmington streets downtown, and the corner of Oberlin and Cameron roads in Cameron Village. Tomasulo hopes they will encourage people to hoof it to their destination rather than crank their car engines. He calls the project “Walk Raleigh.”

It’s a “guerilla” effort without city approval, but city Planning Director Mitchell Silver said he applauds Tomasulo’s creativity and civic-mindedness.

“For the psychology of a city that’s used to driving, having those messages reminds people how short a walking distance it is from place to place,” Silver said.

Tomasulo is an urban planning graduate student at N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He founded CityFabric last year, a tiny company whose localized T-shirts and tote bags printed with city grids have gained national interest. An online fundraising effort last year seeking to gather $13,000 to expand the company brought in about $36,000.

Tomasulo funded Walk Raleigh from his own pocket as a way of giving back to the community that supported his new business. The project already is gaining momentum of its own. National magazine The Atlantic wrote about it on its Cities website earlier this month. BBC World reporters came to Raleigh last week to document the project.

As for the future of Walk Raleigh, the signs were still up Friday, though Silver said they would have to come down because Tomasulo did not get the proper permit. In the long run, Silver plans to ask the City Council to discuss ways to incorporate similar signs into the city’s pedestrian plan.

The city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission invited Tomasulo to speak about his project at a future meeting.

“I don’t see any downside to it,” commission member Sig Hutchinson said. “Anything we can do to make our city and community more walkable and encourage people to walk.”

Tomasulo recently experimented with a similar way-finding tool in New York City: sturdy signs reading “North Is That Way” with an arrow pointing disoriented Big Apple pedestrians in the right direction.

“It’s making what can sometimes be very bland or unengaging information fun, exciting and more accessible to the general public,” Tomasulo said. “If you have an idea or a passion and want to talk about it, people will listen if it’s done in a smart, strategic way.”

Kellner: 919-829-4802

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