NEWS- D.I.Y. safety: After hand-flags, City lights up

The City has unveiled another fossil fuel-friendly pedestrian safety tool at a high-profile downtown location. But unlike its last high-profile crosswalk experiment, the hand-carried flags of 2002, this one avoids social stigma. In late February, workers installed do-it-yourself solar-powered warning lights at the Water Street crosswalk between the Charlottesville Ice Park and the Lewis & Clark Square condominiums. Already, pedestrians are smiling.

Maurice Adams of Fluvanna praises the way the system halted traffic. "It worked really well," he said last week, "[cars] stopped automatically."

Adams' experience stands in stark contrast to a scary scene the City's chief planner, Jim Tolbert, encountered a few months ago: a woman had fallen out of her wheelchair on that crosswalk, and Tolbert says that as he rushed to pick her up, "A car nearly got both of us."

The dangerous crossing is located mid-block where drivers might not not be expecting a crosswalk, especially one that serves as the main western exit for the bustling Downtown Mall.

"You've got that blind curve from Ridge-McIntire," says Tolbert. "So I asked the traffic engineer to take a look, and this is the solution she came up with."

The solution includes a light-bedecked pole warning eastbound drivers on Water Street before they reach the crosswalk as well as poles with pairs of yellow lights at the the crosswalk's two ends.

Because they're powered by solar cells and connected by radio waves, the City doesn't have to dig up streets as it might for, say, traffic lights. The cost for each system is $6,200, according to city engineer Jeanie Alexander.

"I use this crosswalk at least once a day," said city resident Jesse Matthews last week. "I hadn't noticed the new lights, but I think they're definitely necessary."

This is actually the second such installation; Preston Avenue near Washington Park got a similar system last year.

In recent years, the City has beefed up its pedestrian perks. Contrasting crosswalks have been peppering the town since the late 1990s, and one year ago, the City placed flexible day-glo yellow signs in the middle of some crosswalks to remind drivers that state law gives pedestrians the right of way. However, an October 2002 experiment probably won't be repeated.

A month after a professor was injured by a vehicle, the City and University partnered on a creative proposal behind New Cabell Hall. Pedestrians were urged to pick up mobile flags from buckets before crossing the wide and heavily trafficked expanse of Jefferson Park Avenue. However, the flags mysteriously disappeared, and one woman quoted in a contemporary account in the Cavalier Daily branded the scheme "ridiculous."

Alexander laughs and calls it "creative."

"It would have worked if the flags had stayed put," says the University's director of parking and transportation, Rebecca White, noting that the flags were never intended as a permanent fix. That crosswalk was moved east after a few months, and by this July White expects construction to begin on the safest way ever devised to cross Jefferson Park Avenue: a grassy terrace in the $160 million South Lawn Project.–with additional reporting by Sara Gilliam 

Skateboarders Siki Lopez and Hayden Ardvey trigger the light themselves.

The first name of the City Traffic Engineer was misspelled in the print version of this story; it has been corrected in this online edition–editor


1 comment

All for energy efficient alternative, but these lights are hardly noticed by cars. The preceding area (coming down from Lewis and Clark statue) is poorly lit and the brightness of the two new lights is very dim. They look to be 1/4 as bright as any other light in the area.

I still will not attempt to cross by myself or with my kids until I have eye-contact with drivers and know that they are stopping.