As a transplant from Boulder, Colorado, Brad Diggans has been a strong proponent of bike and pedestrian safety and connectivity in Crozet, particularly in his St. George Avenue neighborhood just north of downtown. But when his four-year-old son was struck and injured by a car whizzing past a blind spot created by a parked delivery truck on his street, Diggans and his neighbors were galvanized into more urgent action.
Matt Helt, lifelong Crozetian and St. George Ave. resident, quickly organized a meeting of county officials, police officers, and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) engineers to discuss chronic speeding and violation of crosswalk protocols at the intersection of St. George and Crozet Avenues. About forty residents and officials gathered along the intersection on the morning of March 3 to talk about the road problems and possible solutions.
Up to speed
One key neighborhood concern is that the posted speed limit changes rapidly along Crozet Ave., from 25 mph at the rescue squad station to 35 mph at St. George Ave. and back to 25 mph near Crozet Elementary, tempting drivers to speed over the rise in the road from both directions. “We brought these issues to the state 10 years ago,” said Helt to the assembled VDOT personnel. “Ann Mallek tried to propose the speed limit be reduced to 25 miles an hour here, and VDOT rejected it. Now here we are 10 years later with the exact same concern except that now we’ve had a member of our community run over by a car.”
VDOT chief engineer Carrie Shepherd explained the delay. “We have to go through the process,” said Shepherd. “So, the first step for that is going to be doing a [speed] study and evaluating whether we need to transition to 35 mph in a different location. I understand the situation and I’m sorry that it happened, but we still have to follow our process to get things moving in the right direction.”
“The process is there for a reason and there are safety issues to be considered on both sides,” added Kevin McDermott, Albemarle county transportation planner. “They can’t just switch speed limits immediately, it has to be considered. But you should know that every time we have an accident [in the county], we all sit down and evaluate and try to figure out what happened and whether there is something we can do about it.”
Helt countered with a request for short-term solutions in the interim. “Planning is nice, but we really need action today,” he said. “We need [the county and VDOT] to put up warning signs and paint the crosswalks today, and then we can talk about longer-term solutions. The state of Virginia has released numerous reports saying that pedestrian crashes are on the rise. Now we’ve had one in our neighborhood and that should be a cause for immediate change and we really can’t wait. We needed it last week.”
St. George Avenue neighbors link their issues to the larger problem of the rapid pace of development in Crozet. “The county has authorized how many new houses here?” Helt asked rhetorically. “That’s great, but they didn’t follow through and authorize the infrastructure to support it. We’re talking about the cumulative effects of development—the lack of infrastructure, the speeding and lack of enforcement of speed limits—it’s all related.”
Another neighborhood concern is the lack of crosswalks at the St. George/Crozet Ave. intersection, where currently there are only two white stripes painted on the north and west side crossings. “Nobody stops at the crosswalk down by the elementary school, and the ones at our intersection are routinely ignored,” said Diggans. “We should push for real crosswalks with rapid flashing beacons, the strobe lights on either side, and a refuge in the middle, as well as painted ‘Crosswalk’ and ‘Yield to Pedestrian’ state law signs with fines listed. That’s a nationwide standard for what a crosswalk should look like now.”
Unfortunately, changes on Crozet Ave. would do little to prevent the accident his son had, so Diggans has focused on St. George Ave. in particular in his next steps. “I’ve initiated the first step in the VDOT process for installing traffic calming measures, which is to petition the county Board of Supervisors to declare St. George eligible for such measures,” he said. Next would be a speed study on the street, followed by a count of vehicles to see if at least 600 travel on St. George each day, as well as establishing whether there is strong neighbor support for traffic calming.
Diggans points out that the Little Explorers preschool has increased its enrollment to fifty families this year, which has increased car trips, and he said the Catholic Church may still opt to build a large new church on the street. “St. George is only 18 feet wide and there aren’t a whole lot of options,” he said. “I personally think speed humps would be the only option that would really slow people down, and they would have to be the [flatter] kind that you can go 15 mph over so there wouldn’t be a worry about stalling out for emergency vehicles.”
Virginia House of Delegates Chris Runion attended the March 3 meeting and listened sympathetically to neighbors’ requests. He made a plea for local government accountability to its citizens. “I would like to know, and I think it’s fair for the neighbors to know, when the [speed] cameras are going to go up, when the study’s going to be done, when the report’s going to be issued,” said Runion.
“Supervisor Mallek and I have talked about increased enforcement of speed limits along here as well,” he said. “I think it’s fair to list out what things we’re going to do and when we’re going to do them, and if we’re not going to do them, then let’s just say that up front so we don’t create expectations and disappoint people. To me, this is a big deal and we need to make sure we all are responsible.”
Mallek, also in attendance, nodded to Runion. “Yes, and I’ll be back to you before the next session about letting localities have the ability to send speeding tickets through the mail,” she said, “because there’s no way we can hire enough officers [to enforce the limits everywhere]. A few bad experiences with tickets would slow people down.” Mallek noted that she, too, is frustrated with the pace of change. “I am very impatient to get this resolved after six years and four different residency engineers that I’ve talked to about this specific street and intersection.”
As he spoke to residents, McDermott said he shared Mallek’s frustration. “I don’t want you to think the county’s unresponsive and we’re not doing anything,” he said. “We’ve worked with VDOT to construct new sidewalks and it’s taking a long time—it’s unfortunate that every project we do takes much longer than I would ever wish—but it’s just a process we have to follow.” The community activism showed some early signs of success: a VDOT crew arrived at the intersection two weeks after the street meeting to paint fresh crosswalks.
Reflecting on the harrowing experience of his son’s accident, Diggans thinks that a shift in the county and community culture toward greater bike/pedestrian safety has to take place. “There were a lot of variables present that made that an accident, but there are always a lot of variables and our job as a community is to try to create an environment where accident probability is reduced,” he said. “My son’s accident is a symptom of the larger problem that will repeat itself elsewhere if we don’t change how we think about this. Creating an environment that’s safer for pedestrians and bikes is the important part. People are not going to win against a car.”