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Fixing Richmond's traffic infrastructure after pedestrian deaths is ‘complicated’

Cars driving along the 2700 block of Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond
Multiple people have died in traffic collisions on Chamberlayne Avenue this year, and meaningful change to the road has been slow. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

There’s been an uptick in traffic-related fatalities in Richmond, but actually fixing problems within the city’s traffic infrastructure will take time.

Most recently, two pedestrians were killed in separate incidents on Chamberlayne Avenue in the span of a month, according to  CBS-6.

Brantley Tyndall, director of Sports Backers Bike Walk RVA, told CBS-6 there have been eight pedestrian deaths in Richmond this year — a 100% increase from four deaths in 2021.

According to Kea Wilson — senior editor at  Streetsblog, a news site that covers car dependency — roughly 43,000 people were killed nationwide in traffic-related accidents.

With these upticks in traffic-related deaths, why does it sometimes take an extended amount of time for city officials to fix dangerous roadways?

“Well, that's the million-dollar question,” said Wilson. “And it's a really complicated one to answer. A lot of ways, I think the most visible thing that I always like to start with is just politics.”

Wilson said that if there were any other causes for that number of people being killed elsewhere, officials would take swift action: “If there were gas lines exploding all over your city all the time, and we needed to repair those gas lines, we would dig up the roads, and we would do it.”

But Wilson said transportation occupies a unique position in our culture.

“It touches everything about the way that we move through the world, literally — it touches our businesses, when we take away a parking space in front of a coffee shop,” Wilson said. “It touches the way our kids get to school, it touches everything.”

She said another part of the problem is bureaucratic inertia in the process of making our streets safer.

“If I wanted to, for instance, put better refrigeration standards on every restaurant owner in town, I probably wouldn't need to hold a series of public meetings over the course of decades,” said Wilson. “But when it comes to transportation, generally, that's what happens. There have been some pretty prominent projects that have been stalled literally for decades. But they have consequences and people die because they aren't enacted.”

Despite that inertia, there are numerous political and community challenges involved in making even what can be lifesaving changes to a streetscape. And Wilson said those changes revolve around community engagement and funding, both of which also take time.

“A lot of the time and energy that gets sucked up in the process of making streets safer, has to do with just the administrative tasks,” she said. “When it comes to getting a bump-out on your street, a raised crosswalk installed at an intersection that's very dangerous, the money for that is generally going to come from your local funds.”

Wilson said a lot of transportation funding flows from the federal government to the state and then down to the city. And even with the recent  transportation infrastructure bill that was passed, only some of that funding will go toward safety improvements.

“We have a whole lot of money specifically for driver-focus infrastructure, about $110 billion in highway funds that we can put towards expanding lanes and doing whatever we want,” Wilson said. “But not very much money that's specifically earmarked for safety. There's about $11 billion in the last bill — which is, to be fair, a historic amount. We've never had that much in the past, but it is dwarfed by, you know, the amount of money that we're shoveling into highways.”

VPM reported earlier this week that Richmond City Council is considering how to spend $21 million in property tax revenues from rising home assessments. But a portion of that money is expected go to nonprofit organizations running inclement weather shelters for people experiencing homelessness, as well as to the Richmond Police Department.

“As anyone who reports on cities knows, there's never enough for everything that cities need to do,” said Wilson.

The city is launching a traffic safety and enforcement initiative this weekend — and has taken past action.

“The city has deployed nearly 350 locations using traffic calming measures, installed thousands of high visibility crosswalks, and established more than 62 miles of bike infrastructure all in an effort to change the built environment and shift our safety culture,” Jim Nolan, Mayor Levar Stoney’s press secretary, wrote in an email to VPM News, citing Department of Public Works data.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.