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Richmond can make streets safer, but needs to act now, traffic safety advocate says

Posted at 1:11 PM, May 08, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- In the days since a driver killed VCU student Shawn Soares, 26, on a Richmond sidewalkand months since VCU student Mahrokh Khan, 23, was killed crossing the street on campus, some have expressed concern about pedestrian safety on the downtown Richmond campus.

What do these deaths say about traffic safety, in general, in Richmond?

Richmond cycling and public safety advocate Brantley Tyndall, with Sportsbackers’ Bike-Walk RVA, has thought long and hard about making streets safe for all of us, on foot, on a bike, and in cars.

He took Soares' death personally.

“Shawn was a great guy,” said Tyndall. “I got to meet him when he was in state government when he was working as a legislative aide for a delegate. He was working on traffic and safety issues going back to 2020. It’s a terrible irony that he would meet his end this way.”

And worse, Soares was exactly where any pedestrian is supposed to be: on the sidewalk.

“He was doing everything right,” Tyndall said. “We’re running out of ways to raise a red flag about how dangerous streets can be in Richmond. And unfortunately, the numbers are running in the exact opposite direction we want them to go in.”

Tyndall said pedestrian accidents in Richmond are up 100% from 2022.

“And last year was record high, up 150% from 2021,” he said.

The VCU campus is in the heart of Richmond in many ways and has transformed much of the city.

VCU President Michael Rao, in notifying the community of Soares’ death, pointed to a number of steps VCU has taken to make campus streets safer.

“The university is 100 percent committed to making improvements and is counting on the city to partner with us," he said in a statement he said. “Work has already begun on immediate and long-term changes. Since earlier this semester, VCU Police have dramatically increased traffic enforcement, resulting in 695 traffic stops, 228 warnings, 811 citations, and 61 arrests."

He said VCU had also hired an independent expert to recommend improvements and that report was due by July 1.

“We expect recommendations to include changes to infrastructure for streets and pedestrian areas as well as to traffic patterns," he said. "These could include lowering speed limits, extending pedestrian crossing times, adding traffic-slowing street alterations and more.”

But Tyndall said the City of Richmond can do what seems obvious.

“Reducing speed is the number one way to save lives,” Tyndall said. “Speed is also the number one predictor of whether a crash will be fatal. It’s a solvable problem. With engineering, we can narrow lanes, we can change lanes, we can make one-way streets, two-way and these steps have been proven to save lives. We just haven’t done them yet.”

Tyndall agreed that the expansion of West Main, the road Soares was killed on, from two lanes to four at the Belvidere intersection is a problem. “As you approach VCU from the East, you’re entering a pedestrian zone, but the design of West Main encourages speeding as people try to catch the light,” said Tyndall.

As far as how European cities in Holland and Germany balance for bike and pedestrian safety with vehicle traffic, Tyndall referenced the UCI World Cycling Championships that Richmond hosted in 2015.

“The world came to Richmond,” said Tyndall. “And we had a solid four- or five-year focus on cycling safety. It was exciting to see the city build a lot of bike lanes in that time. The Capital Trail was completed. Our cycling injuries and fatalities are actually down, which is good. So we have a template to build on.”

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