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Speed camera activist: Locust Avenue changes don’t slow traffic
Locust Avenue, August 29, 2016
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Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow
A preliminary report from the city called for a higher speed limit on Locust Avenue and other Charlottesville roads
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Sean Tubbs | Wednesday, August 31, 2016 at 8:34 p.m.

A retired University of Virginia computer science professor who has been studying vehicle movements on Locust Avenue has claimed that a low-cost traffic calming initiative has so far been ineffective in slowing down motorists.

“I had an inkling very early on that this kind of lane narrowing was not going to work,” said Paul Reynolds. “I was hopeful.”

In late July, city crews painted new lines on Locust Avenue as a pilot project that was shaped by input from residents of the Martha Jefferson neighborhood.

The idea behind the $6,500 experiment is to test temporary measures to narrow lanes to see if they would be effective before investing in more permanent solutions.

A solid white line now marks the edge of the northbound lane, and individual parking spaces are now clearly delineated with paint. The southbound bike lane was expanded, and a double white line has been painted to simulate a physical barrier.

“Sharrows” — special markings that tell motorists to share their lane with cyclists — were painted in the northbound lanes.

As a result, travel lanes are now 11 feet wide.

Since last November, Reynolds has been filming vehicles as they pass his house, and he has developed software that tallies up the number that exceed the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The consistent collection of data has allowed Reynolds to make his own conclusions about the effectiveness of the pilot project.

“For about the first three days of August we saw about a 4 to 5 percent bump in more compliance in southbound cars,” he said. “We saw maybe a 1 percent bump in northbound cars. By the end of the first week, we were right back to business as usual.”

Reynolds said southbound traffic is compliant with the law about 45 percent of the time, whereas northbound traffic obeys the limit 25 percent of the time.

The director of the city’s neighborhood development services department commends Reynolds for his work.

“I am not surprised by Paul’s statement that the pilot project is not working,” said Alexander Ikefuna. “The speeding mitigation measures often do not work because of a lack of enforcement.”

The pilot project is not solely intended to reduce speeds. Another goal is to make cycling safer.

Bike activist Eberhard Gehle lives in the neighborhood and said he has benefited from the enhanced bike lane, though he primarily only travels south of the 700 block of Locust Avenue.

“My experience is that — south of Hazel — the skinnied traffic lanes, the painted bumpouts, the designated parking spaces and the “share-the-lane” bike symbols have all tended to reduce traffic speeds,” Gehle said. “In any case, I do feel much safer bike-riding those four blocks now.”

The project was created with input from the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association.

“I am very concerned by Paul’s data that seems to show that drivers really have not slowed down,” said John McLaren, president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association.

“We will want to watch the data over a longer period, but the early signs are definitely not encouraging,”

McLaren added he is disappointed that the painted lines do not extend along the bridge that crosses the U.S. 250 Bypass.

“It turns out that the city’s consultant, Bill Wuensch, after seeing the lines drawn and watching traffic, warned that there could be unintended consequences that would cause some new safety problems,” McLaren said.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin said she would like to see a further painting to enhance the new bike lanes.

“Narrowing the lanes is good, but as I’ve ridden on the bike lane heading south, I’ve seen cars still drive over to the inner line,” Galvin said. “That inner line needs to be ‘blacked out.’”

Since releasing his software to the public earlier this year, Reynolds has discovered that it is being used as far away as China. He’s also corresponded with interested parties in England and Canada.

Reynolds is able to use the system to keep tabs on whether city vehicles are exceeding the limit.

“The city buses are pretty much behaving themselves,” Reynolds said. “Every once in a while, we get a rogue driver. I had one go by at 39 miles an hour the other day. But 95 percent of the time, roughly, buses are going the speed limit.”

Reynolds said he doesn’t have enough data on school buses so far for this academic year.

On Tuesday, Charlottesville City Council is expected to discuss and potentially adopt design guidelines intended to make city streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The Streets That Work initiative has been under development for more than two years.

Ikefuna said he believes increasing ridership on public transit could also go a long way to improving safety.

“I am of the opinion that an improved, more accessible and convenient transit system would do the community a lot of good,” Ikefuna said. “The more we have a shared street concept with stepped up role for the transit system, the better the outcome of the traffic mitigation measures.”
 

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