Look both ways. Car headlights go past. The street is clear. Footsteps on the pavement. Make it to the other side without a backward glance.
Until they don’t.
Travesty paves Richmond’s streets. Ask anyone on campus and they’ll tell you their own horror story of driving in this city. It’s practically built into the roads, flashing at crosswalks and reflected on speed-limit signs. In short, it can be nightmare-inducing. Though Richmond doesn’t have the traffic density of DC or NoVA, there’s still been a rise in driving accidents and crimes ever since the end of the pandemic. Over 1,000 people died in car crashes in Virginia last year, according to the DMV; 171 of those people were pedestrians.
It isn’t just Richmond, and it isn’t just Virginia. There’s been a steady increase in traffic fatalities nationwide over the past several years. An obvious cause is that people are back on the roads again after the shutdowns of 2020, both in their cars and on foot. The Governors Highway Safety Association claims that in 2022, 7,508 pedestrians died in the United States, which is a 14% increase from 2020.
Of course, it’s easy for those of us who drive to blame those on foot. There are both distracted motorists and distracted pedestrians, and it’s simple enough to complain about people never looking up from their phones. However, these accusations are not founded on data as driving is becoming more dangerous for everyone. Besides the influx of activity, there’s also the increased number of vehicles, car size, and speeding that have created results that have been as disastrous as you can imagine. 7,508 pedestrians died last year, but there were 42,795 deaths overall nationwide, making pedestrian deaths 17.5% of that total.
Maybe it was a combination of these issues that led to the deaths of two VCU students. Last year, Mahrokh Khan and Shawn Soares were both struck and killed in traffic incidents.
Khan was just crossing the street to get to her next class that morning and had waited for the lights to change to make her way across the intersection. She was a senior and studying psychology. She wanted to attend medical school. She was only 22.
The intersection where she was struck is West Main and Laurel, just outside of Altria Theater and GRC. Over half a year later, the driver, identified in court records as Shanthi Bhagat, would be charged with four counts, including involuntary manslaughter. Other charges included failure to follow traffic signals and reckless driving, with Bhagat being indicted by a Richmond grand jury. VCU Student Affairs was quick to respond after Khan’s passing:
Only a couple of months later, her death would be followed by Shawn Soares, a 26-year-old graduate student studying business administration. Soares hadn’t even been crossing the street when he was struck and killed on the 300th block of West Main St. Two cars had collided, running onto the sidewalk where he had been walking, hitting him in the process in full view of his fellow students.
There are still flowers at the nearby intersection and the occasional lit candle that nearly flickers out as the cars rush past.
This time, Michael Rao responded. Soares had worked in the President’s office and had reportedly known Rao. Safety measures across campus shortly followed after his death, along with an official comment from VCU’s Presidential Office.
Though these long-needed changes to keep pedestrians safe were finally put in motion, the fact is that it took not only one but two dead students to get the city and school to take action. Furthermore, it was only after the death of a student that Rao knew personally that the school took any palpable measures. Compare that to after Khan’s death, when VCU’s first initiative was to have cops stand on the sidewalk and hand out candy when people didn’t jaywalk. Congratulations on the lollipop; good to know it only took another student’s death to speed up safety measures that should have already been there. Even then, Khan hadn’t been jaywalking when she was struck and killed; however, VCU’s response insinuated that it’s simply student recklessness when on the streets that causes accidents, not the reckless driving culture the city allows. You can remind students as often as you want not to look at their phones, but the fact is that pedestrians aren’t safe even when they follow every rule in the book. Deaths for both pedestrians and drivers have been on the rise nationwide, and Richmond is no exception. The graph below, provided by Vision Zero, shows the increasing number of vehicular deaths that have taken place in Richmond since 2015.
Yet, despite the rising casualties, the city’s current urban planning prioritizes cars over students. With few repercussions, 7 out of 10 drivers exceed the 25 mph speed limit on West Main Street, the road where both Khan and Soares were killed. Even lowering the speed limit to 20 mph would have significant impacts. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, “A person hit by a car traveling at 35 mph is five times more likely to die than a person hit by a car traveling at only 20 mph.” In short, a higher speed limit leads to a higher risk to pedestrians. Considering the heavy amount of foot traffic alone, a change as simple as lowering the speed limit would be worth it.
Beyond West Main Street, there are multiple hot spots for pedestrian foot traffic. Places such as the VCU campus, and areas like Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including communities that were red-lined as far back as the 1930s. Names like Chamberlayne Avenue, Belvidere Corridor, and Hull Street are some of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians. Uneven or nonexistent sidewalks, higher speed limits, and a lack of crosswalks are only a few issues with these roads. Even considering shopping areas that depend on pedestrians, West Broad Street to Carytown, the differences are more than obvious. These are spaces centered on funneling thousands of cars daily, not on protecting citizens who depend on walking and biking to get from place to place. So what are the changes being made to remedy this, especially the ones being made on campus?
We’ve all seen the newly installed speed humps, one of the first steps in ensuring pedestrians are protected. And by the end of the spring semester, VCU contracted Kimley-Horn to work on safety plans and recommendations to make our campus more secure. Speed cameras, curb extensions, and upgrades to signs and traffic signals are only several suggestions made by the study.
There are other questions to ask, too. Mainly considering how our campus is in an open, highly trafficked area, yet there were few precautions taken before Khan’s and Soares’ passings. Why did it have to take this long? We have answers, of course. Proposals, funding, planning, drafting, hiring, contracting, and a million other reasons explain away the plodding pace of government. Take the Hull Street Corridor Revitalization Plan, for example. This plan was first drafted in 2013, with several strategies to enhance the quality of life along 4.7 miles of Hull Street, including bettering road safety. The plans introduced there are still being implemented as the city plans to improve the corridor in their Hull Street Road Improvements Project. This project started last year and will close out in 2026. The math isn’t difficult to figure out, so keep in mind how it’s only this past year that VCU had the Kimley-Horn study conducted.
When is it too little too late instead of taking steps in the right direction? Why did it take loss for meaningful action to take place? How long until more of these reported safety measures are installed? Waiting by while grant applications, reports, and budgets are discussed can be infuriating, especially when these rules are being written in blood.
Yes, these things take time, but lost time equals lost lives.
The delivery of change is a slow process, making us forget the danger and horrors that occur where we walk daily. However, Richmond citizens and organizations have been pushing for pedestrian safety in Richmond for years. Dironna Moore-Clarke, Administrator of Richmond’s Office of Equitable Transit and Mobility, works with civilians through Richmond Connects to address issues created by former transportation decisions. One of their primary focuses is how I-95 cut through Jackson Ward in the 1950s, splintering the community, and how the neighborhood will be hopefully rejoined through the Reconnecting Communities Program. Now, Richmond Connects allows citizens to directly communicate with their government on making temporary and longer-lasting solutions.
Other associations have been taken up by the city, such as Vision Zero, which the City Council adopted in 2016 to create a framework of commitment. Vision Zero is an international program that was founded in the 1990s in Sweden, with the goal to help cities “achieve zero traffic deaths and serious injuries.” Smaller advocacy groups like Bike Walk RVA aim to build communities and infrastructure that support walking and biking. Through organizations like these, the movement to improve our city has grown, but as students, we should see that VCU remains involved with these kinds of programs.
With Richmond’s current infrastructure, we are not safe as pedestrians or drivers. And it shouldn’t have taken the loss of Mahrokh Khan or Shawn Soares for things to change, but it did. At the very least, we need to ensure that VCU makes these changes to protect their students, holding them to the promises they made. We’re left at a crossroads, deciding whether to take a closer look at the lack of protections surrounding the VCU campus and Richmond as a whole, or to step blindly into the street.
Graphics by Hassam Virk