RICHMOND, Va. -- In grief on Friday, friends of the late Shawn Soares shared memories of the VCU student who was killed when a driver drove up onto a Richmond sidewalk after a crash on campus Thursday.
Those friends called Soares, 26, a passionate young man just starting out on his path in life who knew he wanted to make a difference.
"He's just someone who had a lot of talent and was a rising star," said Wyatt Gordon, who worked with Soares at the Virginia Conservation Network (VCN). "He really did just want to make the world a better place."
Friends said Soares had worked for various groups and Virginia politicians, including former Gov. Ralph Northam and the late-Congressman Donald McEachin.
"He wanted to make the world better," friend Maryn Campbell added. "He just wanted to help people."
Brantley Tyndall, a friend, accomplished cyclist, and longtime advocate for safer streets with Bike Walk RVA, said he appreciated Soares' openness and ability to connect with people.
"I thought that was a special skill that he had," Tyndall said.
Richmond Police said there were called for a crash around 6:39 p.m. Thursday where two cars were heading along West Main Street and crashed near the intersection with North Madison.
One of the cars left the road and hit Soares who was on the sidewalk.
Police did not release details on what caused the initial collision and added they have placed charges in the crash. They said the investigation is ongoing.
"It's so hurtful to know that he was on his way back from class and he's just now gone because we can't get a grip on just reducing speed limits and increasing pedestrian safety in the city," Campbell said.
"This campus just isn't safe for people. That's just why he's not here anymore. And we know — we know what needs to be done. We need to lower speed limits, we need to make intersection safe," added Gordon.
Soares' friends, who said traffic safety was among the issues that he worked on, raised concerns about the issue city-wide and in the VCU area.
Friends said the circumstances of Soares' death are similar to those of Aajah Rosemond. The 16-year-old girl who was killed on Richmond's southside when two cars crashed at the intersection of Jahnke and German School Roads in October 2020. One of the cars then crashed in Rosemond who was on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, another VCU student was killed only a few blocks further down Main Street.
"And one of the big takeaways from that crash back in January is that we're on a high speed corridor where people are going fast here and they continue to go fast across Belvedere into VCU's campus. It's a very highly pedestrianized place," said Tyndall. "It's a solvable problem. Speed is the number one predictor of whether a crash will be fatal. It's an impact energy thing. And lowering that impact energy is how you save lives. It's a fixable problem, we can lower the speed of cars, we just haven't done it yet."
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Stewart Schwartz, a board member at VCN and executive director of Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the city has been aware of speeding issues in the downtown area since at least 2007 when a traffic study was completed for the 2009 Downtown Master Plan.
"One-way streets are a defining characteristic of Downtown’s transportation network. These streets were designated one-way in the 1950s in an effort to increase traffic capacity and speed through the Downtown, prior to the construction of I-95 and I-64. This policy has had a negative effect on retail and commercial development, has compromised pedestrian safety and comfort due to increased traffic speed, and ultimately has impeded access to the Downtown itself by complicating routes and requiring “back-tracking” to arrive at a particular destination. There are over 60 one-way streets in Downtown today," read a section of the 2009 report.
"If you look, the lights are timed. You can go 35 miles per hour, which is very unsafe, they should be 25 or less. And you can see from this stretch, how fast the speed can be coming down this downhill," said Schwartz. "We think the city is doing a lot to try to address past problems from the design of this city, which go back to the 50's and 60's, but they need to do much more, much faster. So does the entire state...there is plenty of money to do it and instead of building new sprawling roads, we ought to be making the existing ones safer."
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In his announcement about Soares' death, VCU President Michael Rao said he knew Soares personally.
He said it was clear major changes were needed to improve pedestrian safety and the school was committed to making them alongside the city.
Soares' friends want to see actions following those words and hope that his death served as a wake-up call.
"It's not some type of magic or formula, we know what's wrong," Gordon said. "We're just choosing not to fix it. And we're losing fantastic people like Shawn in the process."
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