Earlier this week, the Sherwood Park Civic Association hosted a “Northside Neighborhoods Traffic Study Rally” at the Richmond Police Training Academy. Over 100 people packed the standing-room-only classroom. We attended mostly to listen, but learned a few things along the way.
Several of the opening speakers from some of the surrounding civic associations made clear at the beginning of the meeting that the purpose of the “rally” was not to revisit the topic of whether bike lanes or new residential development is good or bad for the neighborhood, but rather how traffic will flow safely through Northside in light of these forthcoming changes.
Rather than a play-by-play of the meeting (boring), here’s the gist of what we heard from the folks in the room who chose to speak up:
Northside residents want safer streets. 👍
Northside residents want a comprehensive traffic study. Fine. But are we going to take into consideration people riding bikes, buses, or walking as “traffic”—or are we just going to study the movement of cars through the neighborhood? 🤷♀️
Some people still don’t want the Brook Road bike lane, even though they want slower speeds and safer crossings. 🤔
People also wanted to know the status of when the Brook Road bike lane is going to be installed and since nobody from the Department of Public Works was in attendance (weird), the best info we got is that “it is happening”.
Finally, there was some confusion about who is responsible for getting the funding to pay for the traffic study (which may we may not even need). Clearly, professional “traffic engineers” must conduct the study and they obviously have to get paid, but who is responsible for allocating that money? The Mayor? City Council? A wizard with a cauldron full of gold coins? This is where things got interesting. The call to action from the meeting organizers was: “Email the Mayor and make sure he puts this in his budget”. But, wait a second, doesn’t City Council control the budget? Isn’t that, like, their job? And weren’t two councilmembers sitting right there? A neighborhood resident asked this very question and the response from the councilmembers was…not clear-cut.
After the conclusion of the public hearing, the council may insert new items of expenditure or may increase, decrease or strike out items of expenditure in the budget, except that no item of expenditure for debt service or required to be included by this charter or other provision of law shall be reduced or stricken out.
So, yeah, if you want money in the budget for something in your neighborhood (may we recommend traffic calming measures, safer crossings, and kid-friendly bicycle infrastructure), email the Mayor. But you should also email your City Councilmember because Council can amend the budget in anyway they see fit and ultimately puts their stamp of approval on what stays in, what gets cut, and how much taxpayer money is used.
For some reason, our local media loves to use the bus as a punching bag while ignoring the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who die on our streets are killed by drivers of cars. And the further sad truth is that these deaths and serious injuries often go unnoticed, underreported, and, even worse, usually nothing is done to build better streets and make them safer for people.
Don’t get it wrong: There are changes that need to be made to the Pulse’s bus-only lanes to increase their visibility and safety. We’ll post more on that later. But for now, where does the blame really fall for nearly every pedestrian death? These deaths are caused by terrible street design that prioritizes the speed and throughput of cars over the safety of people. And we should also blame shitty, distracted drivers.
Here are just a few reports of people walking who were killed or hurt by drivers in the Richmond area just over the past couple months:
So before you watch the next overly sensational, breaking news, special report about the dangers of bus rapid transit in Richmond, consider this: If our streets were actually designed for people rather than speeding metal boxes, and if people would actually slow down and pay attention while operating them, we wouldn’t have lost 16 people this year who were just trying to walk somewhere and the 242 people who were injured by drivers wouldn’t have been hurt at all.1
We’d rather have productive conversations about how we get those numbers down to zero by fixing our fucked up streets and enforcing our existing traffic laws. Everything else is just a distraction.
1 According to the Virginia DMV, 16 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield since January 1, 2019 and another 242 have been injured.
Earlier this week, a GRTC Pulse driver hit and killed a pedestrian. From what I’ve heard (I’ve not and will not watch the video should it ever exist publicly), she got out of a car, attempted to cross the bus lane, but never looked for an oncoming bus. She died at the scene.
This awful incident is right at the center of two things I care about deeply, both personally and professionally: buses and pedestrian safety. That those two things, in this case, are in conflict makes me feel tied up on the inside. I had to bail on the second half of my day because the thought of writing regular transit emails or meeting with regular transit people was just too much; A woman on foot was killed by a bus, and it’s the top story on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel, other than tied up. I want to defend the bus, which police say had the right-of-way. I want to scream at the past 70 years of City leaders for allowing our biggest and best street to devolve into an inhumane, unsafe nightmare highway. I want to ask this woman, Alice Woodson, 32, why she didn’t look left before taking her last step. I want to know how to build a city where people can make catastrophic mistakes and not die as a result. I want to explain to folks reading the newspaper that car drivers are involved in nearly every serious injury on our streets—that it’s cars and bad design that make our streets unsafe.
I’ve also been trying to figure out what to do, other than sit with my tied-up feelings. Do we beg city staff, City Council, and the Mayor to study and analyze the video footage, figure out why this terrible thing happened, and change Broad Street to make sure it never happens again? Should we start a campaign to paint the bus-only lanes red, clearly marking space on the street where the rules change and folks should take extra caution? Or maybe I should stay tied up, out of respect, waiting until we inevitably forget about Alice and move on.
It’s a sad, shitty, and complicated situation, and it has really brought to the foreground the feeling of hopelessness I get when walking, biking, or taking transit in Richmond. The constant buzzing background of angry, aggressive drivers and busted, broken sidewalks and inconvenient bus schedules feels sharply in focus this week. We’ve come so far in the last five years—something I excitedly tell people on the regular—but, realistically, we’ve got unimaginably far to go before we can even begin to claim that our city is a safe place for people to get around.
I don’t know the specifics of this fatal crash, and I don’t know if all of the red paint and bollards and policy changes in the world would have prevented Alice’s death. But here are two things I do know: Buses are a critical part of Richmond’s future, and our city is full of dangerous streets. We’ve got such a long way to go before we can untie these two incompatible facts.
Progress! Because of our #sadsidewalksigns work (see Part 1 and Part 2), the Richmond Police Department realized that they do not have a policy for where they place their trailer signs. This is an important first step! From an email they sent us last week:
It appears we do not have a policy specifically directing how/where trailers will be parked. The policy will be modified accordingly. If you want to send over recommended verbiage, the policy writer would be happy to take it under consideration.
Our first priority with these signs is to keep them out of space that’s meant for humans—sidewalks, curb ramps, bus stops, and bike lanes. Furthermore, if we could get RPD put the digital trailer signs in on-street parking spaces that’d be a win, too. Not would that make our streets safer for all kinds of folks, but it could start creating a culture of always preserving space for people at the expense of space for cars.
With those two goals in mind, here’s what we sent back to the RPD today:
Below you’ll find our priorities and suggested language for a Richmond Police Department reader-board sign policy:
Reader-board signs and other Richmond Police Department property shall not obstruct sidewalks, pathways, bike lanes, ADA ramps, bus stops, bus lanes, or any other pedestrian, bicycle, or transit right-of-way, as that act would undermine the goals of Mayor Stoney’s Vision Zero Action Plan.
Alternatively, reader-board signs should, whenever possible, be placed in on-street parking spaces as not to endanger people walking, biking, or taking transit—the most vulnerable users of our street network and transportation systems.
Please let me know if you have any questions, and, again, thank you for the time you’ve dedicated to this so far.
Our work to make sure the Richmond Police Department ends their habit of blocking sidewalks with digital trailer signs continues! In Part 1, we sent an email to Gene Lepley, who handles the RPD’s media requests. asking for a copy of the RPD’s policy regarding where and how it deploys digital trailer signs.
In just a couple hours we got back this reply:
Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
We are looking into the issue.
We should be able to provide an answer by tomorrow at the latest.
And then, the very next day, this response:
I’m told the message boards have been relocated.
Thanks for alerting us.
This is, of course, good news! In fact, here’s a picture of the previously poorly-placed digital trailer sign relocated to the other side of Arthur Ashe Boulevard—in the parking lane, even.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a copy of the policy (assuming one exists) nor was it even mentioned by Mr. Lepley. So! We move on to #sadsidewalksigns, Part 2–in which we thank the Richmond Police Department for moving the offending sign and then reiterate our original request. You can read our follow up email in full below.
This is great news! Thank you for taking this issue seriously and relocating the message boards. We even grabbed a picture of the relocated board on Arthur Ashe Boulevard (see below).
However, our original request was for a copy of the Richmond Police Department’s policy regarding where and how it deploys these message boards. While we’re thankful for RPD’s quick response to these specific message boards, we want to make sure the RPD has the necessary policy in place to prevent future message boards from blocking sidewalks, ADA ramps, and bus stops.
If the Department does not have a policy about where and how to deploy message boards, we would be happy to work together to come up with a policy that allows for safe placement of these signs while not endangering people as they move about our city.
Again, thank you for the incredibly quick response, for moving the message boards to safer locations, and for your further attention on this matter.
A note about what we’re planning: We’re going to post all of the emails we send and receive, notes from meetings, and anything else generated by this process. Transparency is important. But, maybe more importantly, we think that by making the process of advocating for change public we can speed the actual implementation of those changes while also teaching folks how to get things done in their own neighborhoods and cities.
Below is our first email to RPD, asking if they have a policy regarding where and how they deploy digital trailer signs and, if not, offering to help them design one.
We’re writing to request a copy of the Richmond Police Department’s policy regarding where and how it deploys digital trailer signs.
In recent weeks, we’ve come across several trailer signs parked directly in the middle of sidewalks, blocking pedestrian and ADA access. Pictures of two of them are attached below. The first, parked in the pedestrian refuge in the middle of Belvidere at Leigh Street, blocked both ADA ramps. The second, on the southbound side of Arthur Ashe Boulevard at Moore Street, was parked directly in a bus stop. These sign placements are problematic and we observed dozens of complaints from concerned citizens.
As you know, in October 2017, Mayor Stoney signed a Vision Zero Pledge and in early 2018, the first draft of the Vision Zero Action Plan was completed. The work to make our streets safer for people continues across many City departments and the Richmond Police Department is an import partner in Richmond’s Vision Zero strategy. Unfortunately, the placement of these signs are counterproductive to Vision Zero by forcing pedestrians out into the street, making it harder and less safe to walk on our sidewalks. We hope this can be prevented in the future.
If the Department does not have a policy about where and how to deploy trailer signs, we would be happy to work together to come up with a policy that allows for safe placement of these signs while not endangering people as they move about our city.
This is the second time we’ve come across one of these digital trailer signs set up by the Richmond Police Department dead center in the middle of a sidewalk, blocking access to ADA curb ramps. This one in particular was carelessly dropped IN A DANG BUS STOP on the southbound side of Arthur Ashe Boulevard. The cruelest, worst part is the messages on the signs are about locking your CARS to prevent theft. Maybe since the messages are directed at car drivers, the Police Department should set up the reader boards in a parking spot instead? Because right now, this campaign does not meet the City of Richmond’s Vision Zero goals.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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:
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.