It’s something one Charlottesville resident hasn’t had in years. The reason? Getting to the nearest grocery store, Reid’s Super Save Market on Preston Avenue, is a challenge.
“It’s a bit of a hike, about a 20 minute walk each way, so I have to shop light,” they wrote in response to a question asked in a recent mobility assessment survey conducted by the Move2Health Equity Coalition. Through the study, the coalition sought to help Charlottesville officials understand precisely how people here struggle to get around, what that means for their quality of life, and what can be done to help.
“I haven’t bought liquids in years. I miss orange juice.”
Orange juice isn’t the only ordinary thing Charlottesville residents who struggle to get around the city go without, according to the study. Some respondents said they forgo other groceries, and healthcare, among many other things.
The issues keeping people from accessing basic necessities in Charlottesville aren’t just physical disabilities, though that is part of it — nearly 10% of Charlottesville residents have a physical disability, according to the U.S. Census. Infrastructure, like sidewalks, crosswalks, and public transit, also plays a role.
That is important for the city to consider as it implements its comprehensive plan, Peter Krebs, the community advocacy manager for the Piedmont Environmental Council and a lead author of the assessment’s final report, told City Council on Jan. 3. While the plan mentions improving bikeability, walkability, and public transportation throughout the city, it does not lay out specifics for doing so. Getting community input on those specifics is paramount, he said, and that’s one thing the coalition wanted to accomplish with the study.
Between April and September 2021, the coalition conducted a 15-question digital survey about mobility throughout Charlottesville.
Four hundred and twenty-eight people participated, which wasn’t quite the reach the coalition hoped the survey would have — the city’s population was around 47,000 at the 2020 Census. But those who did respond made more than 350 detailed comments.
Here are six key takeaways from the study:
- People forgo walking because they feel unsafe around automobiles and traffic. (The rub there is that people driving cars are also just trying to get around, said Krebs.) They said they’d feel safer if: (a) the city had more sidewalks, wider sidewalks, and more continuous sidewalks; and (b) sidewalks had fewer obstructions — like utility poles — that make them difficult, or impossible, to navigate for people who use mobility aids like wheelchairs and walkers.
- People forgo biking because they feel unsafe around automobiles and traffic. Some said they would feel safer if the city had more uninterrupted and protected bike lanes; “My brother and a good friend were both hit by vehicles while biking in Charlottesville,” another respondent wrote. “My brother survived, but my friend didn’t. I do not feel that this town is safe for bikes, which is a real shame since the distances are manageable.”
- People want to use public transit more, but it is “far less practical than it ought to be,” said Krebs. Survey respondents said that the buses are infrequent and long trips require too many transfers and too much waiting time. One person said that getting from their home in Charlottesville to a healthcare appointment with Addiction Allies in Albemarle County takes 2.5 hours by bus. (It’s 5.1 miles from the Downtown Transit Center to Addiction Allies, an estimated 16 minutes by car without traffic.) People also asked for an improved waiting experience, which Krebs said could be managed by more frequent service. Additionally, poor walkability makes some transit stops “inaccessible or impractical” for some, said Krebs.
- Commuter routes are stressful — not just for commuters, but for the neighborhoods they run through. “They have a pretty major, unexpected side effect of dividing communities” physically while also intensifying safety concerns, said Krebs. For instance, people mentioned the Preston Avenue and Avon Street corridors as two examples of how busy roads can physically, and socially divide neighborhoods. Lots of car traffic on these roads makes it difficult, even dangerous, to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbor across the street. Things like high-visibility crosswalks and wide, protected sidewalks could help, according to the study.
- Food and healthcare are the most difficult resources to reach. No survey respondents said that grocery or retail shopping is easy or convenient. “But people in inner city or historically Black communities disproportionately spoke about it being difficult to get to food or healthcare,” Krebs said.
- The problems highlighted in the survey are not newly-discovered and the solutions aren’t cut-and-dry, Krebs told City Council. For example, when strewn across a sidewalk, dockless scooters can be a dangerous nuisance to people who use wheelchairs and walkers. But the study showed they’re also an important resource for folks who don’t have cars and need to travel short distances, quickly, and not on a transit schedule.
More about getting around Charlottesville
On behalf of the coalition, Krebs advised Council and city staff to approach mobility through an equity and justice lens. For instance, making sure people in one neighborhood have access to a grocery store is more important than making sure there’s a perfect-looking sidewalk in another neighborhood.
City staff are already taking steps to address some of the issues that came up in the mobility survey, said Sam Sanders, deputy city manager for operations. Over the past couple of years, the city has audited sidewalks and curbs, pedestrian conditions at intersections, and more. The city has begun methodically replacing and repairing the issues they found, said Sanders. But they have a long way to go.
It’s not going to be easy, Krebs said. Legacy property lines, trees, water lines and utilities make this work difficult — the city is not a clean slate. “We’re trying to do this work inside a bowl of spaghetti,” he said.
“But that can be an excuse, and we need to not let that be an excuse,” he said later. “Yes, it’s hard. But we can’t stop there. We need to carefully, intentionally, with lots of listening, still go ahead and move aside the spaghetti noodles so that we can put in a sidewalk.”
One, perhaps, that will lead people to orange juice.
Editor’s note: Peter Krebs is the community advocacy manager for the Piedmont Environmental Council. A previous version of the story misidentified his title. The headline has also been changed to reflect the nature of the survey.