Members of an advisory panel charged with recommending infrastructure projects for one Charlottesville neighborhood have turned to citizen-built technology to challenge the city’s denial of a traffic-calming project at the intersection of 10th and Page streets.
“I’ve been a resident on 10th Street for 36 years and my experience with speeding is that it’s a continuous thing,” said James Bryant. “It’s so lucky that we haven’t had anybody killed.”
Bryant is on the Community Development Block Grant Task Force for the 10th and Page neighborhood. Federal funds so far have been used to add curb extensions on 10th Street and to improve pedestrian safety at the road’s intersection with West Street. In the latter case, the curb was extended out slightly to make a crosswalk more prominent, and a rapidly flashing beacon was installed.
For its next project, the group sought to make similar improvements farther down the street.
“We also asked for those blinking lights to be posted at 10th and Page, as well,” Bryant said. “We have schoolchildren who wait for the bus there.”
However, the city traffic engineer concluded after a speed study that the measures are not allowed under nationally recognized engineering guidelines.
The city captures vehicle speeds during a snapshot of time. In the case of 10th Street, the data were collected over a period in March.
“Data indicates that the 85th percentile speed of these vehicles is 28 mph,” wrote city traffic engineer Brennen Duncan in a letter to neighborhood residents. “Based on the city’s Traffic Calming Guidelines, these speeds fail to warrant further traffic calming measures at this time.”
That analysis didn’t match with the experience of some in the neighborhood. They also think the guidelines don’t match the residential character of the street.
“This is the heart of Charlottesville,” said Lyle Solla-Yates, another member of the task force. “It’s an old residential street that is pretty tightly packed. There’s a lot of people there. There’s a lot of people with low incomes. Westhaven is here.”
To get more data, Solla-Yates reached out to Paul Reynolds, a retired University of Virginia computer science professor. Reynolds spent the early part of his career tracking objects and hurricanes for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Spurred by concerns over speeding on Locust Avenue, Reynolds has written video-capture software that has now measured the speeds of more than 4 million vehicles in Charlottesville from the vantage points of Locust Avenue, Grove Street, Rugby Road and Old Lynchburg Road.
“We wanted a rich data set and not just one random day, to get a real understanding of what’s happening on the street,” Solla-Yates said.
Reynolds installed one of his cameras on 10th Street and has been recording high-quality video of the roadway since mid-November. His software calculates speed by measuring the number of video frames it takes for a vehicle to pass between two reference points.
“The city is estimating that about 50 percent of the traffic is compliant with the 25 mile per hour speed limit,” Reynolds said. “I’m showing that it’s only about 35 [percent] to 40 percent in the day studies that I have done in the past three or four weeks.”
Like with other monitoring across town, Reynolds’ technology also depicts speeding by school buses, JAUNT vehicles, tow trucks and other heavy vehicles.
“I was surprised to see who was speeding, including city employees,” Solla-Yates said. “That was eye-opening for me.”
Reynolds said the danger from speeding buses is greater than that of smaller vehicles.
“These are vehicles that are 15 to 20 tons traveling when kids are going to or coming out of school,” Reynolds said. “It’s the worst possible time to be driving a 15-ton vehicle at a speed that is three to five times as likely to kill on impact.”
Reynolds said there were initial results when he brought information about Locust Avenue to the city in the spring of 2016.
“The city after much cajoling slowed its city buses down, and for the last year the city buses have been behaving very well on Locust Avenue,” Reynolds said. “Evidence this fall shows that their speeds are getting back up to what they were before.”
On Friday, JAUNT’s executive director, Brad Sheffield, met with Reynolds to see the data for himself.
“I can use the exact case of speeding to peel back the layers to find why it happened, and what I can do to prevent the trigger that caused it,” said Sheffield, also an Albemarle County supervisor. “Speeding is the outcome of some other dynamic that is unknown until we have tangible case studies to investigate.”
Reynolds is lobbying the General Assembly for localities to have the permission to install cameras that would ticket drivers who go more than 10 mph over the limit. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, introduced such legislation in the 2017 General Assembly but it did not make it out of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Both Reynolds and Solla-Yates question the effectiveness of traditional traffic-counting methods.
“When people see that they are being studied, it is apparent and it shaped their behavior,” Solla-Yates said. “If you only do one study and you mess up, you don’t know that you’ve messed up.”
Duncan said efforts are made to try to hide the traffic counters to avoid influencing behavior.
“They can be seen if you know they are there and are looking for them, but most drivers don’t and just drive right over them,” he said.
Duncan said he cannot use Reynolds’ data because the way it is collected has not yet been validated by engineering societies such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Regardless of whether the improvements meet the city’s guidelines, the city’s rules for public infrastructure on roadways does in theory allow for some traffic-calming measures.
In September 2016, the City Council adopted a new set of guidelines for development of infrastructure along roadways. According to the Streets That Work initiative, 10th Street is classified as a Neighborhood A street.
“This would be the same designation as roads like Rose Hill Drive, Avon Street, Elliott Avenue and Park Street,” Duncan said. “It is intended to handle a certain number of vehicles and under [Virginia Department of Transportation] methodology would be classified as a minor arterial.”
The Streets That Work policy recommends “curb extensions, speed tables, raised intersections, raised crossings and mini traffic-circles” for Neighborhood A streets.
Solla-Yates is hoping that whatever traffic-calming measure is ultimately selected for 10th and Page, the city can be persuaded to act through more data.
“What this has shown me is that the speeding problem is worse than I thought, which is troubling,” Solla-Yates said. “I believe our concerns are strengthened and should be listened to more carefully now.”