City engineer briefs Martha Jefferson residents on Locust Avenue traffic calming

The city of Charlottesville is seeking input from Locust Avenue residents on the next steps for traffic calming on the busy street.

In the summer of 2016, crews painted new lines on the road to reduce the width of traffic lanes and to simulate a physical separation between vehicles and bikes on one side of the road.

“We can leave it as it is as striped,” said city traffic engineer Brennen Duncan. “We can remove it all and put it back to what was there before. Or we can go ahead and implement something.”

Duncan recently briefed the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association on the results of the $6,500 effort. The association had been asked to decide how the initiative should be configured after a traffic study demonstrated the road qualified.

“The average speed in the northbound direction was about 30 mph and the southbound direction was about 31 mph,” Duncan said. “The 85th percentile speed is 34 and 38, respectively,’

Duncan said that means that 85 percent of vehicles drive underneath those speeds. Traffic engineers use that measurement to set speed limits.

“We did an initial traffic study right after the implementation of the striping plans,” he said. “There was an initial drop in the speeds out there.”

Data were collected in August 2016 from two locations by the firm EPR.

Closer to downtown, the average northbound and southbound speed dropped to 23 mph and the 85th percentile dropped to 26 mph. Speed measurements collected from a spot in the 800 block of Locust were slightly higher but still lower than they were before the traffic calming was put in place.

“That’s pretty incredible for just some stripes on the ground,” Duncan said. “This was always intended to be a temporary condition to see if it would work.”

However, not all residents feel the striping has worked.

“My impression living in the 800 block of Locust Avenue is that it hasn’t gotten any better at all,” said one woman at the meeting.

A retired University of Virginia computer scientist who has used speed-tracking software to capture data on an ongoing basis agrees.

“My data is showing that traffic has sped up slightly since the traffic calming,” said Paul Reynolds. “The figures went up. Compliance went down. Vehicles traveling over 35 mph went up.”

Another resident familiar with Reynolds’ data said the pilot program may have slowed down some traffic but there is still an inherent danger.

“Although it’s impressive that the 85th percentile seems to have dropped by nine mph, it’s the other 15 percent that are the problem,” said Mark Rylander. “It’s a pretty significant problem when every seventh car is going over 40 mph.”

A previous traffic engineer had recommended increasing the speed limit on Locust Avenue to 30 mph, causing an outcry in the community. The city did not implement the request.

“It is a neighborhood street and I agree with keeping it low,” Duncan said.

Duncan said there were limits to what traffic engineering can do to address speeding.

“It’s a straight road,” he said. “The speed issues we have are not in rush hour. They are when there aren’t a lot of vehicles on the road.”

“Ultimately, it’s going to come down to enforcement,” he added. “From a traffic engineering standpoint, if we can get 85 percent of the people to drive within 5 or 6 [mph] above the speed limit, you’re doing a pretty good job.”

Charlottesville police have written more speeding tickets on Locust Avenue in the past few years. Officers issued 33 citations in 2010, but that number rose to 106 in 2016 according to Lt. Steve Upman. Last year, police wrote 87 tickets.

The city is now asking neighborhood residents what they might want for next steps. Possibilities include a sign that tells motorists how fast they are going. Another would see “pedestrian scale lighting” installed at crosswalks.

“That’s something that both myself and our public works director is pushing for implementing in our new standards and design manual,” Duncan said. “It’s at the crosswalks so at night there’s a light at the crosswalk that shines into the road so a car can see if there’s a person in it or not in it.”

The Toole Design Group is being paid $199,987 to update the city’s standards and design manual. Duncan said he is hesitant to put up new signs until after that work is completed.

There’s also an idea of creating a mid-block crossing in the long 800 block but Duncan said that would require a sidewalk on the west side of the road.

“At a minimum, we’d like some sort of pedestrian enhancement,” said Eberhard Gehle. “I see all over the rest of the city you have ‘crosswalk ahead’ signs.”

Duncan said the city soon will send a letter to Martha Jefferson neighborhood residents.

“We need some kind of consensus in terms of how we’re moving forward,” he said. “Are we going to go ahead and work towards a design or leave it because people are happy with where it is?”

The proposed capital budget for fiscal year 2019 includes $150,000 for a line-item labeled “city-wide traffic engineering improvements.” That amount is increased from the current allocation of $95,000 a year.

Duncan said that might be one source for any physical improvements on Locust Avenue.