We are all diminished by one

Last week, a woman was murdered by a person driving a car through Shockoe Bottom in Richmond. In this case, the vehicle was the murder weapon.

Shiauna Harris was arrested on Friday evening for the act of killing Shanice Woodberry and injuring three other people, and she will be charged with homicide. Also last week, the neo-Nazi driver who killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville two years ago was sentenced to life in prison. Justice will be done in both of these incidents, but this is not always the case when a car is involved in killing a person.

Too often, as we have seen in New York City with the recent death of Richmonder Robyn Hightman, the claim of “I didn’t see them” is excuse enough for many people—including law enforcement—to shrug off a fatal crash as an “accident.” This is a terrible and all-too-common occurrence. And it’s not just in bustling cities like New York City where bikes and cars rub up against each other for space. A 30-second search of last week’s crash-related news pulls up stories of a woman who ran over a man who was trying to keep her from driving drunk and a truck that spun out of control and smashed into a house with a person inside. This is by no means a comprehensive list—that would probably require a full-time intern to compile—but they are examples that pose important questions about the threat we invite through the unregulated use of cars in our cities.

Is it okay that nearly anyone over the age of 16 can get behind the wheel of a machine that in one instance can be used to drop the kids off at school and in another instance can kill dozens of people within seconds when accelerated into a crowd of people? Or that someone can simply lay down in a street that was intentionally designed to move a lot of cars real fast and commit “suicide by car?” Is there a gun comparison to be made here? What do you think, reader?

More children and teens die from traffic-related crashes in America per year than from guns, and yet we have a liberal blind spot when it comes to car culture. It’s a blind spot that prevents our elected officials from doing anything truly meaningful to regulate the unsafe use of cars and the unsafe design of the streets on which we drive them. Can you name one U.S. mayor who has decided to take a stand against traffic violence in their city and put extremely effective and politically risky measures in place to eliminate traffic-related deaths?

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is currently pushing for a ban on guns in city-owned buildings and parks. At what point do we start pushing for greater regulation of cars in an urban environment to achieve #VisionZero? What would that look like? Perhaps it would look like putting some political muscle behind the idea that cities should—in some form and in some settings—#BanCars.

How DO you cross Broad Street at the Staples Mill Pulse Station?

Richmond’s Pulse is one of America’s newest (and best!) bus rapid transit lines. In fact, just this week the ITDP—the mysteriously acronymed international organization that scores and ranks BRTs—awarded the Pulse a bronze ranking (PDF). The Pulse has a ton of features that helped it score that ranking (no American BRTs have scored gold only two have scored silver) and make it easy for folks to use: bus-only lanes, transit signal priority, platform-level boarding, off-board fare collection—all the good stuff.

Unfortunately, like almost all public transit that reaches out into suburban areas, it lacks the safe pedestrian infrastructure needed to access certain stations. The Pulse’s worst pedestrian offender is probably the Staples Mill set of stations. How DOES one safely cross Broad Street from either of these stations?

Surely we’re not the only superfan of CookOut milkshakes that want to ride the Pulse, grab a chocolate-peanut butter-and-banana shake, and then head back into town—all without getting splattered by a driver speeding down Broad Street. In fact, just this week we got an email from someone wondering the same exact thing:

Speaking of VCU, I am giving up my free parking pass and starting to commute on the Pulse. It’s a lot less convenient, but I’m doing it on principle. But I can’t get anyone at VCU to tell me how it’s possible to cross Broad Street safely at the Staples Mill station, especially after dark. Do you know of any plans (or strategies) to make crossing West Broad St. safe for the public?

First, major high fives for supporting public transportation over single-occupancy vehicles for your daily commute. Second…we don’t know what to tell you. Currently, there is not a safe way to cross W. Broad Street on foot at either Staples Mill Pulse station. Which is ridiculous! This is the region’s highest-quality transit line and the surrounding pedestrian environment is terrifying. Additionally, as far as we know, there’s no money allocated to build infrastructure to slow drivers down and make the crossing safer—and, again, as far as we know, there’s not even a plan to make a plan for safety improvements. We’ve even been told that the safest option is to ride the Pulse down to Willow Lawn and back around to avoid crossing Broad on foot. That’s not a great answer or option—but it’s unfortunately the best we’ve got??

This is definitely a problem, but what can we do about it? Maybe some or all of the following things:

Install a High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK)

The most straightforward way to make sure traffic stops and stays stopped is to install a dang traffic signal. HAWKs are like stop lights, but specifically designed for crosswalks on major streets. They sit dark until they’re activated by a button, and would then present a solid double red light to drivers—theoretically, they all know what that means. A HAWK can even be installed mid-block—in fact, the first one in Richmond will soon be installed on Broad Street but way on the other side of town just east of N 16th Street (see below).

Site of Richmond’s first HAWK.
  • Pros: The solid double red commands drivers to stop, pedestrians can cross safely, milkshakes will be had.
  • Cons: It’s expensive, motorists will most likely complain about even the slightest delay in their commute, engineers will probably want to do a bunch of (also expensive) traffic studies.

Install a Rapid Flashing Beacon

These bright signs and flashing beacons have popped up in a couple spots around town—including on the notably terrifying Dock Street. They’re new to Richmond, and, for now, it’s unclear whether or not drivers give a crap about stopping for them.

  • Pros: It’s something, and it’s cheaper than a traffic signal, that’s for sure. 🤷‍♀️
  • Cons: Until driver culture shifts, RFBs feel like more of a suggestion, rather than a command to stop—and that’s not what pedestrians need when trying to cross six lanes of traffic, milkshake(s) in hand.

Take away a bunch of lanes so it doesn’t feel like the Richmond International Raceway out there

We’ve got six lanes to work with, three in each direction. Maybe for the area surrounding the two Pulse stations we could have a street cross-section that looks something more like this:

  • Pros: When drivers see the open road in front of them, they put the pedal to the metal. Bus-only lanes, street trees, and medians help slow down traffic (or take space way from cars) and make crossing easier. Less open road, means less pedal, means slower, safer streets that are easier to cross on foot.
  • Cons: Anytime you talk about taking away travel lanes, motorists arise, unite, and collectively lose their minds about the couple extra minutes it may now take them to get to work. This could also be very expensive, depending on just how much of the street you want to change.

Lower the speed limit on Broad Street in Henrico County

The Henrico County line is just north of Broad Street and just west of Staples Mill, and because reasons, the speed limit changes from 45 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour at the city/county line. This means drivers heading east from Henrico into the City zoom by at incredibly unsafe-for-pedestrians speeds.

  • Pros:  Slower speeds mean safer streets! This is also relatively cheap—replace a couple of signs and get the Henrico/Richmond Police Departments out there to enforce the new speed limits.
  • Cons: If you get hit by a driver going 35 mph, you still have a good chance of dying. Also, without appropriate traffic calming improvements (see above), drivers are unlikely to obey the new speed limit unless there is an ongoing enforcement campaign.

Do nothing until someone dies

This is, for the moment, the course of action we’ve decided to take, and that’s really terrible.

  • Pros: …?
  • Cons: Someone will die or be seriously injured here trying to use our public transportation system until we decide to change the street and make it safer for people.

There are certainly other solutions to providing a safe crossing at the Staples Mill Pulse stations that aren’t included here—and some of the solutions listed above may be real dumb for various engineering reasons. But, for example, cities like Phoenix are doing something, getting creative, and using a combination of technologies to make their streets safer for humans:

A Phoenix HAWK in action. Notice the high-visibility crosswalk and pedestrian refuge. —www.pedbikeimages.org / Mike Cynecki

The Richmond region’s transportation engineers could do this too! When empowered by elected officials, they could definitely solve this problem quickly and efficiently. Our public officials just need to know that this problem exists (which they totally may not) and that getting it fixed is a life-saving priority.

Lucky for us, at least one of our elected officials—Richmond City 1st District Councilmember Andreas Addison—is definitely aware of the problem. We asked him about this particular bad-for-pedestrian location, which sits in the 1st District, and here’s what he had to say:

It is time for us to intentionally design streets for pedestrians first. As our city grows, we must prioritize safety and equitable access to public transit. The lack of safe infrastructure for pedestrians to access the Staples Mill Pulse stations is just another example of how we have consistently prioritized personal vehicle use over people. It’s time to change that trend.”

Councilmember Andreas Addison

Yes! We totally agree, Councilmember.

So, if you’ve ever taken your life in your own hands and Froggered all the way across W. Broad, consider emailing one or both of the following elected officials. Let them know that they need to make fixing this portion of Broad Street a priority.

Richmond needs more neighbors

Late last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted to ditch single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes in every. single. neighborhood. It’s a bold decision that’ll create more affordable housing, reduce racial segregation, and begin the work towards more sustainable climate policy.

Richmond 300 is our opportunity to do the same, demonstrate that we “get it,” and proactively set the bar for progressive housing policy in mid-sized cities. The question is whether we have the guts to do it.

Here’s a few good bits from a New York Times editorial on how cities across the country should follow Minneapolis’s lead:

The number of housing units completed in the United States last year, adjusted for the size of the population, was lower than in any year between 1968 and 2008. And the problem is most acute in major urban areas along the east and west coasts. Housing prices, and homelessness, are rising across the country because there is not enough housing…

People who think of themselves as progressives, environmentalists and egalitarians fight fiercely against urban development, complaining about traffic and shadows and the sanctity of lawns…

Single-family neighborhoods rose to prominence across the country after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that zoning based on race was unconstitutional. “Single-family zoning became basically the only option to try to maintain both race and class segregation,” said Jessica Trounstine, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, who has studied segregation.

What works for your neighborhood?

If you visit the Main Library (101 E. Franklin Street) between today and Tuesday, take a look to your left as you enter the building and you’ll see artist Carl Patow’s WORKS WHEN installation.

From Carl’s website:

WORKS WHEN asks residents of Richmond, VA “what works for them in their neighborhood”. They place a small pearl on a handheld stylized map of the city, locating their neighborhood.

Each tile is an artifact – documentation of a conversation about the community in which the participant lives. On the reverse of the tile, they write a sentence about their neighborhood that includes the words “WORKS WHEN”.

Over 300 tiles are assembled geographically on a large simplified floor map of the city. The accumulated tiles offer insights about what is important for neighborhoods to function and  for communities to thrive.

First, this is an excellent example of broad community engagement, that, at least in my experience, folks could actually have time for. No one wants to fill out your three-page survey while they’re running in to the library to check out a book, apply for a job, or use the 3D-printer(!).

Second, the stylized map of Richmond—marked only by the river and Broad Street—is clever but definitely compresses the city’s less dense neighborhoods while expanding those where more people live. That’s similar to what transit maps frequently do, the London Underground Map being one of the most famous examples.

If you’ve got time over the next couple of days, stop by the library, check out the piece, and read some of what works for folks in their neighborhoods.

Call for Community Leaders!

From today’s email from the Richmond 300 (City Master Plan Update) team, which is looking for (and paying for) community engagement assistance:

The Dept. of Planning and Development Review (PDR) and the City Planning Commission need you to help us reach Richmonders and engage them in creating Richmond 300, the city-wide Master Plan. If you or someone you know is active in engaging communities that are typically not involved in planning efforts, please consider applying for a micro-grant of $5,000 to help us include even more Richmonders in the Richmond 300 process. In the fall 2018 engagement effort, PDR reached over 1,000 individuals, but PDR would like to reach even more Richmonders and a more diverse set of Richmonders in the next stage of the process, which will be in fall 2019. 

The application is due on July 1, 2019. Late applications will not be considered.
Please submit using one of the following methods:

  • Online Application: complete the application online. Online applications are due by July 1, 2019 at 11:59 PM. Late applications will not be considered.
  • Email Application: complete the PDF application and email it to richmond300@richmondgov.com. Emailed applications are due by July 1, 2019 at 11:59 PM. Late applications will not be considered.
  • Mail Application: mail the application to Richmond 300, 900 E. Broad St, Room 510, Richmond, VA 23219. Mailed applications must be postmarked by July 1, 2019. Late applications will not be considered.

One mid-sized city to rule them all

Richmond, Virginia is a mid-sized American city, and, like hundreds of other mid-sized American cities, it’s totally awesome…while, at times, totally frustrating. Also, like other similar cities, Richmond has made a lot of recent progress in creating a more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable urban environment, but there is, of course, still tons of work to do. To speed up this process—so Richmonders a couple generations from now aren’t still waiting on a city-wide network of protected bike lanes or frequent transit into the surrounding counties or even just sidewalks in Scott’s Addition—Richmond should learn, borrow, and steal as much as we can from our peer mid-sized cities. That learning/stealing should go both ways, too—Richmond has plenty of smart people willing to share smart lessons with folks across the country. To that end, we think Streets Cred can help.

The “mid-sized” part is really important. Sometimes hearing what new amazing thing one of the five Big Transit Cities™ has done to decrease bunching on their subway with 3-minute headways just doesn’t resonate with the average Richmonder, or Charlottean, or Columbusite. But when you start discussing what Spokane, Washington has done to increase transportation options for people living in concentrated areas of poverty so they can access grocery stores, jobs, and schools—well, now we have a better apples-to-apples comparison. Focusing on the problems facing mid-sized cities and their solutions, providing that comparison, that’s what we are trying to do with Streets Cred. We sure as shoot can learn from the experiments, pilots, mistakes, successes, and proven best-practices of other mid-sized cities. If we’re not doing that, we’re messing up.

Also, to be completely honest: We will rant or rave about Richmond-specific things that really suck or really rule. A closed sidewalk in Carytown with no pedestrian access alternatives really sucks. We will yell at you about it! A new bike lane that was done as part of a routine paving project totally rules—and we will sing its praises! Be prepared! We hope that our region’s elected officials and decision makers—and other folks from other mid-sized cities—are listening and learning about what works and what needs fixing.

Finally, we are always looking for contributors. If you have something to say about transportation, land use, planning, design, placemaking, urban policies—stuff like that—send us a message and we will work with you to give you a platform. All aboard!