Safety hazards persist at state’s busiest intersection

Burlington’s Main Street intersection with University Heights crosses the University of Vermont campus, serves as a key gateway to Vermont’s largest city and is the busiest pedestrian street-crossing in the state.

Burlington city engineers are still evaluating traffic patterns at the intersection of Main Street and University Heights six months after a UVM study called attention to the safety hazards there. 

“We are looking at signal timing and pedestrian infrastructure changes such as widening crosswalks to enhance pedestrian safety,” said Laura Wheelock, manager of the city’s Street Capital Program, adding that a public engagement session will be scheduled this fall.

Jim Barr is the director for Transportation, Parking and Sustainable Transportation Services at the University of Vermont and a member of the Campus Master Planning Advisory. He’s the UVM official in contact with the city regarding the future of the intersection that is both a gateway to Burlington and the UVM campus. 

“At this point, we are still gathering data to analyze,” Barr said. “They [city engineers] are looking at engineering changes to the intersection as well as relooking at the signalization and timing, widening the crosswalks and looking at potentially adding a separated bike lane.” 

The intersection is the busiest pedestrian crossing in Vermont, posing safety concerns for university students on foot as well as commuters and local residents traveling in and out of Burlington each day. 

Last spring, UVM senior Owen Toleno conducted a study of the intersection along with UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont Director Richard Watts. 

The city followed up with its own examination of the spot by traffic engineering consultant Clough Harbor Consulting based in Albany, N.Y.  

On Oct. 16, city and university representatives met on campus to review the Clough Harbor study. A UVM student correspondent for The Other Paper, as well as a reporter for the UVM student newspaper The Cynic, were denied permission to attend the meeting. 

Speaking afterward, Barr said the consulting firm “discussed the queuing of vehicles at peak times and how that affects the peak pedestrian activity in the area.” The firm also shared information about the different interactions between bikes, pedestrians and cars. 

Barr said neither costs nor a timeline for solutions were discussed at the meeting. 

The report from Clough Harbor does not suggest the city move forward with any particular solutions but instead advises further evaluation of Main Street traffic patterns. 

On a page titled “Next Steps,” the analysis recommends the city “document pedestrian flow patterns between UVM north side and south side facilities and along University Heights” and “identify options/benefits to reroute (pedestrians) at crossings.” 

“UVM will continue to work on messaging and education while the city is making their changes,” Barr said.

Sheer volume, and safety

During peak afternoon rush hours, Toleno last spring recorded 3,228 cars and 923 pedestrians passing hourly through the intersection. 

He also documented 5% of drivers using cellphones between peak rush hours. And between 8 and 9 a.m., Toleno observed 71 drivers run red or yellow lights.  

“Between Redstone and Athletic campus, UVM has 4,200 students living in residential halls on one side of Main Street and they have to cross multiple times a day – it’s the most popular intersection,” Toleno said. “Even today, I live over by Centennial Field and was biking through campus after class and I got off my bike to walk it across the road, and basically as I was getting ready to cross, the light turned red, and three straight cars ran the red light as pedestrians were starting to cross.”  

A 7-second overlap between the pedestrian crossing and the signal for cars that can turn right from University Heights onto Main Street is especially problematic, Toleno said. 

“It leads to a lot of really close calls with cars,” he said.

Nothing new

Hazards to both pedestrians and motorists at the busy intersection are not new. 

Aiden May, a student senator on the UVM Student Government Association’s Committee on Legislative and Community Affairs worked with Student Government Association President Jill Scannell on the intersection project. 

“We looked back at some of the old data the university has collected, like the campus master plan, the UVM Active Transportation Plan, so upwards of 10 years the university has had concerns about this,” May said. 

Last spring, Scannell and May contacted Barr to understand what has already been done on the intersection. 

“The crosswalk had already been repaired and I believe the white lines were widened to be more visible,” Barr said. 

East District City Councilor Jack Hanson confirmed that in 2018, the brick pedestrian pathway through the intersection was repainted. Last winter, the city changed the traffic light signalizations and stepped-up police enforcement and ticketing.

“There has also been a lot of ideas for improvements like exploring crosswalks, thinking about other visual signals like the big yellow pedestrian crossing signs and adding wider bike lanes,” Hanson said.

Students including Toleno and May have made suggestions as well. 

“One of the common solutions for issues like this is bumping-in the road, making it a little narrower, because people who are driving do what the road tells them to do. So if it’s a straight line, people sort of psychologically speed up a little bit,” Toleno said.  

May said students can take steps now to be more aware at the busy spot by removing headphones and always double-checking for traffic before entering the intersection to be sure vehicles are stopped.

“I’ve seen the pedestrian crossing sign come on … and people pull their friends out of the intersection as a car flies through,” May said. 

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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