BRATTLEBORO—If you were driving south on Route 5 last Saturday and weren’t paying attention, you would have missed him. Or, worse, you might have hit him.
As darkness fast rolled in late in the afternoon, a young man trudged south on Route 5 languidly, heading toward the roundabout at Interstate 91’s Exit 3.
The pedestrian’s head was shrouded by the hood of his sweatshirt, a charcoal grey that almost perfectly matched the hue of the dirty snow from serial snowstorms that by now had overflowed well into the shoulders of the busy state highway, making it impossible to walk anywhere but in the travel lane. The rest of the young man’s clothing was dark, almost perfectly matching the wet, black asphalt.
Walking with the flow of traffic toward the neon lights of Putney Road, the young man disappeared into the darkening night, illustrating in his wake a perfect example of how not to walk safely.
Four pedestrians have been killed in Brattleboro in the past three years, with the first three killed in the winter of 2012-2013.
In a tiny state where approximately 10 pedestrians a year are killed, that spike made people take notice. While opinions differ on the statistical significance, all the people who are actively working on the issue agree that one person killed on the road is one person too many, and several measures have built momentum to make the streets safer.
Kicking off soon will be a new phase of the Safe Streets Project, which has distributed free reflective gear and which is now looking at a new phase of outreach to raise awareness among automobile drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike.
And, while volunteers and town officials are taking the long view with this project to change the habits of everyone using the roads, the Selectboard awarded a contract last week for, and work will finally proceed on, a long-anticipated project: the Western Avenue/Union Hill intersection, the curvy, hilly, wide, and objectively dangerous intersection where the most recent pedestrian fatalities have occurred.
A winding road to a new intersection
With a grant from the Vermont Agency of Transportation through the Local Transportation Facilities (LTF) program, the Selectboard on Feb. 18 unanimously awarded the contract for redesigning the intersection to Holden Engineering of Concord, N.H. for $28,656.40.
The total project budget for engineering and reconstruction is $70,000, which includes a 10-percent match from town funds.
The “rigorous” bidding process ensures that any firm selected will employ “people who really know what they’re doing and are really good for the town,” said Hannah O’Connell, the Department of Public Works’ water and highway superintendent.
Public hearings should be scheduled soon, O’Connell said. “Everyone is very eager to get this off the ground, and so are we.”
At midafternoon, just after the last major wave of kids from the Green Street School have crossed Western Avenue at the Union Hill intersection, crossing guard David Wheelock, decked out in a yellow fluorescent vest, still stands ready at his post, stop sign poised. A Kid Alert fluorescent green man helps the passing motorists see the crosswalk.
The gregarious and avuncular Wheelock, one of approximately 10 crossing guards employed by the school district, has worked this site for about three years. He describes the busy intersection as a “hairy situation.”
“No wants this intersection,” he said.
Wheelock points out the steep grade of Union Hill, noting that cars have to edge right into the eastbound lane for the drivers even to see — and then, “you can’t even see anyone [in the crosswalk] until you’re at the top of the hill,” he said.
In icy conditions, he said, the cars have to maintain momentum even to get up the steep, narrow hill, which puts people crossing the street there at greater risk.
And the narrow road grows progressively wider until it becomes an 80-foot-wide intersection, a huge journey for pedestrians under even substantially safer conditions.
According to the project’s specifications, developed by SVE Associates of Brattleboro, the proposed pedestrian improvements include a new island at the top of Union Street as a “pedestrian sanctuary” to break up the unusually long crosswalk, and “bulb outs” that will define two turning lanes at the intersection.
Wheelock’s crosswalk will be moved away from the intersection, and other improvements will call for lane striping, bicycle lanes, sidewalk reconstruction, and measures to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other improvements might leverage technologies that have emerged since the original designs were executed eight years ago, O’Connell said, also noting that Public Works Director Steve Barrett is eyeing a pedestrian signal for the crosswalk.
Another traffic safety planning study, funded by the same state grant, will separately assess the conditions of another very wide section of Western Avenue, this stretch near Academy School in West Brattleboro.
In the meantime, cars whiz along the busy state highway.
“I make eye contact,” Wheelock said, describing his method of getting motor traffic to stop for the children. “You can’t assume that they’re going to see you. And a lot of it [also] has to do with them not paying attention.”
Who’s on the road?
Alice Charkes, an inveterate bicyclist, describes the Safe Streets Project simply.
“We want to bring awareness to all users of the street,” said Charkes, an at-large member of the project steering committee. “We want pedestrians to be visible to motorists and not be hit by them. We want bicyclists to be aware of pedestrians and not hit them.”
The project, funded by the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program, began in 2012, with former Town Manager Barbara Sondag convening a committee after three pedestrian fatalities.
Charkes said that in 2013, the committee distributed more than 1,700 reflective armbands and leg bands and developed educational materials to help people pay more attention to their surroundings.
She pointed out the challenge of identifying the people who most needed the outreach.
The committee realized that one key group was people who were “middle-aged and older” and who had not had basic road safety rules reinforced.
So the committee made a point of finding venues they could use to reach an older audience, like newsletters and assemblies of organizations — like area senior centers — that appeal to or directly serve an older demographic.
That effort, in turn, led to a fruitful partnership with the AARP, which offers its 55 Alive driver safety and retraining course for the organization’s members and which has helped with outreach.
Charkes said the group looked at bicyclists and found two distinct groups of people pedaling on the roads.
The first group are passionate bikers and do so constantly as a conscious lifestyle choice. But the second group of cyclists are trickier to pin down — and thus to reach with the safety message. They’re on the bike grudgingly, because they’ve lost a driver’s license or they can’t afford a car. And that group changes, with cyclists on and off the road for longer stretches of time.
So the group reached out to a wider variety of businesses and entities that touched this wide cross-section of cyclists, ranging from bike shops to shelters.
“We also realized that people who have dogs and walk dogs are a huge group,” Charkles said. “One of the gentlemen killed was walking his dog.” As a result, the committee got reflective gear and literature to dog owners via veterinarians, the Windham County Humane Society, and area town clerks, who interact with owners when it comes time to get the dog its license.
Now that the reflective bands are out there in people’s homes and ready to wear, Charkles said, the next stage is, “Do we see them on people?”
The Safe Streets Project is administered with the technical assistance of Local Motion, a Burlington-based nonprofit, and this year’s budget of $3,000 offers a stipend to committee chairs and defrays the cost of safety supplies, said Jason Van Driesche, director of advocacy and education.
When Brattleboro’s pedestrian deaths made statewide news, Van Driesche made contact with the town, and the partnership took hold.
Van Driesche, who says the measures in Brattleboro are a “subset of strategies” that have proved to work in Chittenden County, likens the process of teaching pedestrian safety to “weeding a garden.”
The next step, he said, is to “turn up the volume” on the media presence — through letters, outreach to media, public-service announcements on BCTV, and the like — to build awareness with a “get spotted” campaign to encourage people to be seen in the safety gear.
Brattleboro has already engaged in some creative outreach with the program, including town-sanctioned stencils on Main Street with spray chalk last fall, reminding pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
“In Chittenden County, we just had to keep at it,” he said, noting that for the first couple of years of that region’s Safe Streets Project, which began in 2008, the free reflective bands “just seemed to disappear into the void.”
It took a few years, Van Driesche said, but the “gradual change induced a cultural change.”
“It was not quick. It was not straightforward,” he warned.
Charkles said the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of the initial outreach.
“I’ve been impressed by how many bikes I see with headlights,” she said. On the other hand, “I still see lots and lots of pedestrians who aren’t wearing reflective gear.”
Older towns, mixed landscapes
Van Driesche pointed to the landscape of Brattleboro and similar towns in Vermont as an environment where efforts like the Safe Streets Project are essential.
After World War II, older neighborhoods and downtowns with smaller lots gave way to an environment that was “built with cars in mind,” he said.
“In that pattern of development, it’s hard to bike and walk to where you want to go,” Van Driesche said.
In towns like Brattleboro, a congested downtown encourages people to walk, while motorists and bikers have reason to travel to other parts of the town or are just passing through. But when the fundamental structure of the roads haven’t changed, the mix of people using the streets — particularly people who are increasingly distracted — can create more dangerous situations as traffic increases and habits change.
Change is happening slowly, if not perfectly. Charkes said that the reconstruction of Putney Road several years ago added dedicated bike lanes that are by no means universally liked or accepted by either the community of cyclists or the drivers who are confused by the lane configurations.
But, she acknowledged, the very presence of the lanes and their prominence bring visibility to bicyclists, and that awareness on the parts of those who use the state highway can only be helpful for safety.
Van Driesche said that he’s helping Brattleboro identify partners — such as SIT/World Learning and the other colleges and programs that are slated to open in the renovated Brooks House — that can work with the project to distribute its public safety message to their own students, members, employees, or other constituents.
Despite the surge of activity to promote mutual safety, Van Driesche said that he’s not sure that in a town as small as Brattleboro and a state as small as Vermont, the cluster of pedestrian deaths can be seen as statistically meaningful.
“I caution against lumping all pedestrian-versus-vehicle accidents together,” said Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland. “The facts that led to [each individual] accident are in every way unique.”
But, Van Driesche noted, whether the recent pedestrian deaths are a statistical anomaly or an indication of an escalating problem is almost beside the point.
“If three people dying in one year is unacceptable — and clearly it is — then it means that the way the streets work in Brattleboro is unacceptable,” he said.