Audrey Dannenburg with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired describes how the improvements will assist those with visual impairments

City Council has approved a slate of specific recommendations to improve pedestrian safety in several key areas of Downtown Charlottesville.  Up to $700,000 will be re-allocated from the City’s budget to help pay for the improvements. Funding will come from the City’s capital budget reserve ($300,000), the City’s existing  sidewalk fund ($200,000), and traffic improvement funds ($200,000).

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The recommendations were presented at Council’s September 2, 2008 meeting by Jim Tolbert, the City’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services. He said when implemented, the changes will make pedestrian signals more uniform throughout central Charlottesville.

Council established a committee earlier this year to study pedestrian safety in the wake of a high-profile incident in which an Albemarle County police officer struck a man in a wheelchair as he crossed West Main Street at 4th Street NW. The committee met several times before making a series of recommendations. They recommend first making improvements at intersections along Market Street, Water Street, West Main Street, and University Avenue.  Black and white crosswalks, ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and countdown signals will be added in the following locations:

Enhanced pedestrian signals which make audible signals will be installed at priority locations, even though they might be outside of the study area.  The cost for 11 such signals is $159,930. Tolbert and Assistant City Traffic Engineer Donovan Branche demonstrated the new audible signals, which replace chirping sounds with human voices that give blind pedestrians more specific instructions such as “Emergency vehicle approaching! Clear the intersection immediately!”

Special crosswalks which flash LED lights when pedestrians are crossing will be installed in key locations such as the walkway between the Omni and McDonalds. That will cost $300,000 at six locations throughout the City.  After these improvements are installed, the Committee will measure their effectiveness before future corridors are identified.  Tolbert said the blinking lights are placed in the roadway along a crossing and flash when someone steps into the intersection.

“They’re visible during the day and the night…particularly in foggy conditions,” Tolbert said. The City has tried one of these before, on Cherry Avenue near Tonsler Park. Tolbert said the technology has improved since that time, and follows similar crosswalks installed by the University of Virginia.

Other recommendations include the creation of a $30,000 public education campaign to clarify traffic laws and signage for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, as well as increased enforcement of traffic laws. That proposal was not included in the resolution passed by Council.

Sean Tubbs