Uncalming: Traffic bumps causing damage, anger
No one questions whether drivers should go slowly as they cross the Downtown Mall. But the speed bumps installed earlier this month as part of the pedestrian area's rebricking are doing more than just slowing drivers down– they may be damaging the vehicles that cross and are becoming damaged themselves in the process.
"Even when you drive forward slowly, you still drag," says J.R. Graves, who delivers prescription drugs for CVS pharmacy and drives across the Mall several times a day in either his Toyota Corolla or a Chevy sedan.
Graves says he isn't driving fast over the bumps, and indeed, on Wednesday afternoon, May 20, a Hook reporter on the Mall handing out free CDs heard dozens of cars scrape one of the raised concrete devices.
There is visible evidence of the dragging. Less than a month after installation, gouges and black marks mar the surface of the concrete bumps at both the Second Street NW and Fourth Street SE crossings.
"It's two inches too high," says Sam Rochester, chef at the Downtown Grille, who says he has scraped every time he has crossed in his station wagon. (Except on the day of Rochester's interview, when a Hook reporter warned drivers to come to nearly a complete stop.)
Are the bumps really too high?
According to one local mechanic, the height–- which a reporter measured at 6.75 inches above the blacktop of Second Street two feet past the bump–- is more than most cars can handle, even at slow speeds.
"You could do some serious damage," says Buck Dean, shop manager at Edgecomb's Imported Auto. Depending on the make and model, Dean says a car could sustain damage into the hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
Unlike speed humps, which are used by the Virginia Department of Transportation as traffic-calming measures and are standardized to rise just three inches over 12 feet, the Mall's traffic slowing mechanisms are more like speed bumps– shorter and taller, and typically used only in parking lots.
Various traffic websites suggest that proper speed bump height typically remains under four inches tall and one foot deep– nearly three inches shorter and two feet shallower than the Mall bumps.
Cars aren't the only vehicles struggling. Hook reporters have heard the deep thump as the city's own free trolley has scraped. And wheelchair pedestrian Gerry Mitchell, who was infamously struck by a police cruiser in a crosswalk in November 2007 and has since become an outspoken advocate for pedestrian issues, says he and others in motorized wheelchairs are unable to traverse the new Mall speed bumps at all– something he says is necessary when the sidewalks on either side are blocked.
"It's just dangerous," says Mitchell.
City engineer Tony Edwards says he's aware of the problem and says the City plans to investigate using a "low profile" vehicle. Says Edwards, "We're definitely looking at how we can adjust these if we need to do that."
Some, however, are saying the need is already obvious. Downtown building investor Paul Wright thinks a speed bump makes perfect sense on the way into a pedestrian zone but no sense on the way out.
"The damage and grooves," says Wright, "show that they are significantly too high."
–last updated 6:18pm, May 28