Tony Redington: Champlain Parkway is transportation apartheid

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tony Redington, of Burlington, a leader of the Pine Street Coalition.

As an urban walking safety advocate, I’ve termed the discrimination against pedestrians as “transportation apartheid.” The lack of safe, busy, urban streets, mostly dominated by now obsolete traffic signal technology, makes getting around a risky adventure, including accessing bus stops. Walking along busy streets makes one constantly aware of being a second class citizen when it comes to transportation — the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington with its shared space intersections an exception, along with the few downtown Vermont roundabouts. Otherwise, cars rule! And yes, every two weeks a pedestrian is hit by a car in the Queen City.  

Still Burlington boasts one of best small metro public bus transit systems in North America. Good pedestrian safety plans include the landmark 2014 North Avenue Corridor Plan calling for the highest level of safety for all modes, including safe-for-all-modes roundabouts at intersections and end-to-end protected bike lanes. Then there is the excellent 2017 Plan BTV Walk Bike Plan.

For pedestrians the overall safety is grim. Since 1990 the U.S. fell from first to 15th in road safety — we now generate a road fatality pandemic of 21,000 excess highway deaths a year compared to the top four nations.  This pedestrian picture is even uglier — deaths up 50% in the last decade to about 6,500, including two Burlington fatalities since 2010.

Apartheid also applies to pedestrians fatalities on a racial scale: African Americans die at almost twice the rate of whites (87% higher), and Hispanics half again (51% higher).  

Two predominant elements determine pedestrian safety — presence of a sidewalk, and at busy intersections, safe provision to cross — shared space, roundabouts and raised crossings. But the safe-for-all-modes-roundabout is the standard — New York’s “roundabout first” regulation dates from 2005. The magic of roundabout technology is Vermont-proven in 52 years of data on the five roundabouts in town centers — three in Manchester Center and one each in Montpelier and Middlebury. The safety record? Five non-serious injuries — one per decade — four car occupants, one pedestrian and zero bicyclists. Burlington has 19 signalized intersections, each averaging 1.4 injuries a year, 14 a decade each. 

The Federal Highway Administration estimates roundabouts cut all crashes by about a third and serious injuries/fatalities about 90%. (Burlington and Chittenden County are late to the party with a first roundabout on a busy public street.)

The two-mile $47 million Champlain Parkway, opposed by the Pine Street Coalition (see, actually removes sidewalks. It lacks a single inch of sidewalk or safe, separate bikeway accommodation along its basic route. A pathway mixes high speed cyclists with pedestrians — more apartheid. 

Apartheid applied to pedestrian transportation and racism merge in the federally mandated outreach on impacts of the parkway on the King-Maple neighborhood. King-Maple is the highest percent minority neighborhood in Burlington -- one in five residents (21%) -- likely the highest concentration in Vermont. In addition 80%-plus residents have low/moderate incomes. Most important, 31% of households have no car access and thereby are depending on walking and accessing bus transportation.  

The city for decades strongly opposed the Champlain Parkway through King-Maple, but was overruled by the Vermont Agency of Transportation.  Now clearly the city’s case is validated by the dangers and racial discrimination as two reliably safe-for-pedestrian, all-way-stop intersections get converted to traffic signals — resulting in overall higher speeds on King, Maple, and Pine streets; 20% more pedestrian injuries; 9% to 37% higher traffic; longer time for pedestrians to cross; and increased noise. More pedestrian injuries, delay and traffic discomfort mean disproportionate impact on low-income and minority residents, many of whom have no choice but to travel on foot.

The Champlain Parkway outreach hearing on environmental justice was July 29, but public comments are accepted here online until Aug. 24. One cannot avoid the direct connection between the current parkway and environmental injustice in the form of racial discrimination against people with black and brown skin who must walk, and suffer increased pedestrian injuries. The Pine Street Coalition's "New Street" approach relieves the King-Maple impacts and retains pedestrian safety now in place. 

In late July Burlington declared racism as a public health emergency. City Councilor Zoraya Hightower described the objective: “Our job is not to be saviors, but to find areas where you have embedded racism in your institution and remove it.”

It is time for the city, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration to stop the environmental, racial and economic injustice imposed on the King-Maple neighborhood by the Champlain Parkway.

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