Walk the city with a planner and you might find an obstacle course.
There are intersections with no crosswalks or right-of-way signals, planter boxes and parking meters that hog the sidewalk, and curb ramps that dump you into the middle of an intersection.
While these obstacles might be mere nuisances for able-bodied pedestrians, they’re subtle features of design — or lack of design — that discourage walking.
Richmond has adopted a number of strategies in recent years that encourage transportation beyond the passenger car. And often it’s the small retrofits of design that have the biggest impact on the behavior of drivers, cyclists and walkers.
“If we’re just in the background, it’s gold to us,” says Michael Sawyer, the city transportation engineer. “We’re the man behind the curtains in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
Sawyer was hired last year to bring fresh perspective to the Public Works Department, which is responsible for the 820 miles of streets, 760 miles of sidewalks, and 81 bridges that were long designed to move cars around quickly and keep everyone else out of their way.
His tenure comes on the heels of the city’s 2013 strategic multimodal transportation plan to diversify transportation networks and a complete streets policy adopted in October 2014.
“With the complete streets policy, our DNA changed,” Sawyer says. “It’s how the city is built and run and operated, how space is assigned to different modes of transportation.” And he cites a new movement toward healthy streets guiding policy. “It’s not just concerned with building-face to building-face design, but with the health of the people in the building,” Sawyer says.
That means economic health, such as access to jobs, as well as death and injury prevention and support for active lifestyles. “On top of all that, your streets have to be beautiful,” he says. “It’s a different way from how transportation design was viewed historically.”
Regardless of what it’s called, the city is thinking more comprehensively about street design. “Any improvement we’re doing, we’re looking at pedestrians first, then transit and bikes,” Sawyer says. “Then from there, OK, now how much car traffic do we need to move? Everyone is a pedestrian at some point.”
Richmond’s Highway Safety Commission passed a resolution in January recommending that the city join the Vision Zero initiative and commit to eliminating road deaths and serious injuries by 2030.
Begun in Sweden, Vision Zero is a traffic safety project that, in part, simply acknowledges the responsibility that traffic design can play in road safety. The commission’s proposal will ask City Council to establish a task force to help ensure Vision Zero is being addressed in the city’s transportation framework.
Sawyer also reports that the city is applying for a federal smart-city challenge grant with a grand prize of $15 million “to do technologically advanced things.” He has big plans for Richmond’s streets.
Here are some current city projects in varying stages that implement this new prioritization — and highlight design’s influence over driver, walker and cyclist.
Monument Avenue at North Allen Avenue
Progress: Construction underway.
Street features: Pedestrian crosswalks, pavement markings, medians and corner island extensions; east and west traffic reduced to single lanes.
What they do: Slow car traffic, manage turning vehicles more safely and improve pedestrian visibility.
By retrofitting this old traffic circle into a modern roundabout, public works will clear up perennial pedestrian frustration at the intersection. Sawyer also notes the work will “address a longstanding crash trend with wet pavement and vehicles losing control.”
Floyd Avenue Bike Boulevard
Progress: Construction underway.
Street Features: Small, residential traffic circles, curb extensions, raised crosswalks and green bike sharrows.
What they do: Slow car traffic and draw attention to pedestrian crossings.
Slower car traffic, along with the sharrow graphics of a bicycle mounted with two chevrons, makes the street more compatible with cycling. Also seen popping up in Carytown, the curb extensions — or in some cases, planter boxes before the crosswalks — reclaim spaces that illegally parked cars might have occupied and make street crossing shorter and safer.
“It’s a good example of retrofitting somewhere that was already pedestrian friendly,” Sawyer says.
Hull Street Modifications
Progress: Preliminary approval from the city.
Street features: Protected shared use path, improved crosswalks and traffic signals.
What they do: Encourage walking and biking.
The initiatives follow recommendations made in a corridor revitalization plan developed with Chesterfield County in 2013. It includes a busy 4.7 miles on either side of Chippenham Parkway. “We’re taking the worst performers and making them all stars,” Sawyer says of priority corridors such as Hull, Midlothian and the Boulevard.
The city is moving forward with its side, proposing sidewalks and a shared use path for cyclists and pedestrians, buffered by landscaping. Suburban streets might seem inhospitable, but planners say they have more flexibility when it comes to rehabbing the wider roadways.
“One exciting thing about more suburban streets, they’ve already spent the money to obliterate communities everywhere, so you’ve got all these corridors that are so wide,” says Andy Boenau, who leads the urban planning practice at Timmons Group. “That space can be reclaimed easily without eminent domain, and at a fraction of the cost you can now provide paths for people.”
Grace Street Two-Way Conversion
Progress: Finished between Fourth and Ninth streets, more planned.
Street features: The return of the two-way street.
What it does: Improves pedestrian comfort and safety, eases navigation and drives commercial growth.
Jim Smither, a professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that streets such as Grace were initially converted to one-way to speed up car traffic.
“Look at Cary Street — most cars are going between 25 and 40 mph,” he says. “It’s like a racer mentality: cars on either side going the same direction and no cars opposing me.”
Facing oncoming traffic, cars slow down, making streets more friendly to bicycles and pedestrians. And “for merchants it’s important because if you have cars going in both directions,” he says, “it’s an opportunity for cars to see a storefront from more than one angle.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, complex intersections and driving experiences are often safer for everyone — because drivers are forced to focus on their environment. And street design is the language of communication among drivers, cyclists and walkers.