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With hundreds more Charlottesville students expected to walk or bike to school next year, community members want the city to improve intersections and crosswalks to ensure a safer trip to and from school.
The changes sought so far include repainting crosswalks around schools and on walking routes, improved signs to alert drivers to stop for pedestrians, reduced speed limits and expanded school zones.
“It is like such a nightmare,” said Guinevere Higgins, a Clark Elementary parent, at a recent meeting of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “Walking to school is a stressful, scary situation.”
Over the weekend, advocacy group Livable Cville sent a letter to City Council seeking an allocation of $1 million toward Safe Routes to School projects. The group also wants council to direct staff to identify and implement short-term safety improvements that can be quickly made along school routes.
“The pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in Charlottesville is not adequate and has needed improvement for many years,” the group wrote in the letter provided to The Daily Progress.
City Council will hear an update on the issue at its meeting later this month.
“City staff is working closely with [school] leadership to devise various supports ahead of the start of school,” Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders said in a statement. “In light of the ongoing challenges with bus driver shortages, the city wants to determine multiple ways to support other means for getting our students safely to schools.”
Charlottesville school officials said last month that they are expanding school walk zones and making fewer students eligible for bus service. The move is in response to a shortage of school bus drivers. The city current has less than a third of the drivers it needs to drive current routes.
Under the plan, elementary students will walk up to three-quarters of a mile to school. Those who attend Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High will have to walk 1.25 miles. The city has had the shortest walk zones in the country, according to the division.
School division officials are working to spread the word about the changes. Last week, Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. canvassed the Westhaven neighborhood to talk with families about the changes and then walked to Venable Elementary. School board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres walked a with group to Buford Middle.
Venable is about six-tenths of a mile from Westhaven. For Gurley, the key concern on the route is the intersection at 10th and Page streets. The intersection has four crosswalks but no stop signs for cars on 10th Street.
To address the issue, the school division is planning to post a crossing guard at the intersection. The division is also currently hiring crossing guards for the coming school year at $16 an hour.
Gurley said that he has heard from families who are concerned about safety and traffic and that he shares those concerns. He said the school system needs to work with the city to address the issues.
Division staff will hold their next “Talk and Walk” Friday at Friendship Court from noon to 1:30 p.m.. On Friday, July 22, officials will be at Heartwood Apartments from noon to 1:30 p.m.
The school system is planning to make exceptions for areas where walking infrastructure is inadequate. Officials will also create an appeals process to review routes that are not perceived as safe, according to its website.
The city schools are also collecting feedback from parents and community members about areas of concern. Phil Varner, a city parent, has compiled a list as well, which he has shared with the bicycle and pedestrian committee.
“There’s definitely some pretty dangerous roads that the kids are going to be asked to traverse,” he said.
He said his immediate goal is making crosswalks and intersections as safe as possible. His includes ideas for general fixes and specific suggestions for each school’s walking zone.
The advisory committee explored options for some specific areas and will send a memo to City Council with recommendations from reducing speed limits to adding signs. The committee also wants to see the school division response for more specific suggestions.
“Anything that anybody can do in seven weeks is going to be really fast and really dirty,” said Kyle Rodland, the city’s safe routes to school coordinator. “Curbs won’t be moved.”
Rodland said the quick options available to the city involve paint, flex posts and crossing guards.
“Nobody has the answers,” he said. “The whole city is short-staffed. If you go to the city with a list of problem areas and say, ‘hey, this is a problem, fix it,’ there’s nobody there who will come up with an idea to fix it. So they are looking to [the committee] for those recommendations.”
Others at the meeting advocated for a community-wide plan to educate drivers about more students walking and yard signs along routes urging motorists to slow down.
In its letter, Livable Cville suggested that the $1 million could pay for higher-visibility crosswalk treatments, narrowed traffic lanes, physical protection for bike lanes and expanded school crossing zones.
“In some cases, these changes will create minor inconveniences for drivers,” the group wrote. “However the safety of students going to school is more important than these minor impositions on people driving and we must embrace this trade-off.”