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Charlottesville sidewalk expansion hopes to increase pedestrian safety around the city

The first phase of the project is set to be completed by 2030

<p>The plan also targets historically underserved areas in an effort to increase the equitable distribution of sidewalks.&nbsp;</p>

The plan also targets historically underserved areas in an effort to increase the equitable distribution of sidewalks. 

The City of Charlottesville has plans for the expansion of its sidewalk system over the coming years, prioritizing numerous new sidewalks in different locations around the city, including near Grounds on Emmet Street and Jefferson Park Avenue. With concerns over pedestrian safety and the quality of existing sidewalks, some members of the University community have discussed challenges and possible solutions that would make Charlottesville a more walkable, safe and equitable city. 

The expansion of the City’s sidewalk network follows a recent increase in pedestrian fatalities in Virginia. In 2020, Charlottesville alone saw 15 pedestrian fatalities, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. More broadly, there were 172 pedestrian deaths in Virginia in 2022 — a 37 percent increase from the year before.

Students at the University have also expressed concerns over a lack of pedestrian safety on Grounds in areas with high pedestrian traffic. First-year Engineering student Will Kittrell said that he has seen unsafe conditions while crossing McCormick Road and on the Corner — two areas with high pedestrian concentrations. According to Kittrell, illegally parked cars prevent him from seeing oncoming traffic as he is crossing the road, causing near collisions.

“On McCormick Road, people park and leave their hazards on, and when I go to cross, I can’t see other cars coming,” Kitrell said. “I step out and almost get hit or see people almost get hit all the time.”

The new sidewalk expansions that will be closest to Grounds include 485 feet of sidewalks along Emmet Street from Stadium Road to McCormick Road and 3,700 feet along JPA adjacent to Dawson’s Row, from McCormick Road to West Main Street. There are additional committed sidewalk expansions, on Fontaine Avenue and Emmet Street, which have not yet been assigned a timeframe or funding plan.

To bolster accessibility and safety in areas with high pedestrian traffic, goals for the City’s sidewalk project more broadly include meeting the increased demand for sidewalks along certain routes, as well as strategically placing them around Charlottesville in areas that will benefit the most from the additional infrastructure. 

Charlottesville City Council member Michael Payne said he believes that this project is a huge step forward for pedestrian safety, especially considering the backlog of sidewalk projects that the City has faced in past years. He said that the backlog was exacerbated by the pandemic, when vacancies in select positions led to fewer projects being completed.

“I’d expect that everybody’s going to be very happy that we’re starting to make some significant progress and putting plans and funding in place,” Payne said. “It’s always going to be much safer for pedestrians when you have a well built sidewalk and you’re not needing to walk right by the road.”

According to the City’s plan, areas and neighborhoods where infrastructure investment is most needed also often have poorer, non-white or low english-proficiency populations. The City said they hope that by prioritizing equitable placement, the expanded sidewalks system will increase accessibility and connectivity in these underserved areas. According to the City government, 55 percent of proposed locations for expansions are in areas where a majority of households fall below the local median income. Additionally, 26 percent of proposed sidewalk priorities are in areas where the proportion of people living with disabilities is higher than the state average.

Andrew Mondschein, associate professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and associate dean of research at the School of Architecture, said that the current state of the City’s sidewalk network is inadequate. He said that the inequitable distribution of sidewalks between neighborhoods is a major problem that the City faces, however, the City’s sidewalk system as a whole is subpar.

“Sidewalks are essential, and the truth is that in Charlottesville, that’s not a resource that’s consistently available to everyone in every neighborhood,” Mondschein said. “Some neighborhoods have better sidewalk infrastructure than others, but I would say more broadly, Charlottesville in general doesn’t have a very good sidewalk network.”

The City’s new project divides planned sidewalks into three tiers depending on the amount of time a sidewalk is expected to take to complete, the cost of the project and any external factors which may hinder its construction, such as planned paving or other scheduled maintenance. The construction of Tier 1 sidewalks, which are categorized as shorter segments with few construction conflicts, is projected for completion by 2030, while Tier 2 sidewalk locations will not begin construction until after 2030. 

Tier 3 projects are more complicated and therefore have no distinct time frame as of yet. They are expected to have significant conflicts during implementation, will require coordination with external partners — such as the University or state government — and will require additional state, federal or private funding. All projects near Grounds are classified as Tier 3.

Beyond an insufficient number of sidewalks, University students say that issues of pedestrian safety are also related to the poor quality of existing sidewalk networks. Second-year Architecture student Liz Handte said that the sidewalks in many areas, such as down West Main Street, are poorly maintained, narrow and may be difficult for some to navigate.

“I assume it’s really difficult for people to get around if [they’re] elderly, having to walk over these stumps and trees that are kind of in the middle of the pedestrian road,” Handte said. “For me to cross the street, I have to get into the road because I can’t see, so I’m in the road trying to see traffic, which is incredibly unsafe.” 

The U.S. Department of Transportation lists numerous ways beyond expanding sidewalk coverage that communities can improve their pedestrian safety and access. Examples include implementing physical barriers in roads, clear signage and lights at crosswalks. According to the Federal Highway Administration, physical barriers between the road and sidewalk, such as raised medians or trees, can reduce pedestrian crashes by up to 46 percent at marked crosswalks. Medians can also leave space for street lighting, which helps decrease nighttime pedestrian fatalities by 78 percent.

Payne also said that the City has additional plans beyond the sidewalk expansion project to increase the number of bike lanes and create physical barriers between sidewalks and the road, which will further contribute to increased pedestrian safety.

“[The sidewalks are] a big step forward, but it’s not the end of those efforts,” Payne said. “I think there’s a lot more that will still be happening, … [including creating] protected bike lanes and, as much as we can, [creating] a physical barrier between pedestrians and cars.”

In light of the current absence of these other improvements, Handte said these sidewalk expansions are not a complete fix to the pedestrian safety issues in the City, but that the project is still a great first initiative towards solving the problem.

“There’s probably a lot more that can be done, but I think that it is best that they’re focusing on pedestrian streets as an initial priority,” Handte said.

The final sidewalk priority list, which will detail all committed locations and project lengths, as well as the tier of each project, is due to be published in June. According to the City, each sidewalk project will lead to some conflicts such as right-of-way changes or road narrowings, which the City will take into consideration when determining the time frame for each project.


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