Community Members Brainstorm about “Walkability” in Cruz Bay

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The narrow road between the fire house and the tennis court. The construction sign has been hacked. Amy Roberts photo.

Feature for St. John Tradewinds and St. John Source.

There are dozens of things we can do to make Cruz Bay more safe and pleasant for pedestrians, and they don’t all have to cost a lot of money.

That was the consensus of a community meeting held Wednesday evening that began at the Legislature’s Conference Room and concluded, after a short walk through part of town, at the Recreation Center across from the fire station.

Organized by the Virgin Islands Department of Health, the St. John Administrator’s Office, and the St. John Community Foundation, the meeting was the first step in engaging the public and creating an action plan to make St. John more “walkable”—that is, more user friendly for pedestrians, hikers, and even cyclists.

The project began a year and a half ago when the Department of Health (DOH) asked the Center for Disease Control for assistance in launching a walkability initiative, said Esther Ellis of the DOH.

The DOH has determined that “chronic disease and physical inactivity are significant public health concerns in the USVI,” and one out of three adults in the territory does not get enough physical activity, according to a 2010 study.

Camille “JuJu” Paris, Cooper Penn, Ian Samuel, Sherry-Ann Francis, and Celia Kalousek participated in the walk through town during the meeting.

Getting people to walk more is a simple way to increase their physical fitness, but the problem isn’t merely a matter of motivation.  There are numerous barriers to pedestrians, including the absence of sidewalks, narrow streets where cars double park, hazardous drainage ditches along roadsides, and steep hills.

To address the problem throughout the territory, the Center for Disease Control sent down trainers to teach 26 Health Department employees how to conduct a “walkability audit,” a study of the elements that support or hinder pedestrians as they move throughout their neighborhoods.

DOH auditors assessed 1,114 street samples from 46 estates throughout the territory.  What they found was discouraging: continuous sidewalks existed on only 4.3 percent of the street lengths sampled, and only 2.4 percent of the sampled areas had ample lighting.

Sidewalks and street lights are expensive to install, and though they are certainly desirable, the first priority of the walkability initiative is to identify solutions that are “LCQ”—low cost and quick.

At the meeting, presenters showed a PowerPoint illustrating examples of LCQ remedies, including the creative use of paint, planters, traffic cones, and bales of hay to set off areas for pedestrian use.

St. John has a $6,000 budget to implement immediate improvements, so one goal of Wednesday’s meeting-and-walk was to identify specific things that can be done right away in one small part of Cruz Bay—the area between the entrance to the Julius E. Sprauve School and the Recreation Center.

A pedestrian takes a common path to cross the roundabout.

Celia Kalousek, executive director of the St. John Community Foundation, explained that this stretch of road was selected because it is heavily used residents who park at the gravel lot and run errands in town, by visitors who stop at restaurants and bars, and by children who leave school and walk to activities at the Rec Center.

Community members and representatives from the Department of Public Works, the National Park Service, the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Education joined with meeting organizers on the town walk.

On the way, they paused to discuss elements that support pedestrian traffic, such as the wide sidewalk along Winston Wells Ball Park, and the pleasing greenery in front of Extra Virgin Restaurant.

They also discussed the barriers, including low-hung wires that cross the sidewalk, the absence of clearly marked crosswalks, insufficient signage at the traffic roundabout, and virtually no safe path for pedestrians moving from the roundabout to the tennis court parking area.

Sherry-Ann Francis, field coordinator for the St. John Administrator, spoke about watching a woman with a baby carriage try to cross the street near the fire station the previous night.  Since there are no sidewalks, and roadside culverts create uneven surfaces, the woman had no choice but to wheel the carriage on the dark road in the direction of oncoming traffic as the cars streamed by.

Meeting-goers brainstormed solutions, including adding a crosswalk, covering the culverts, and even moving the entrance to the school annex at the corner to make room for a continuous sidewalk.

The lack of continuous sidewalks is a problem throughout the town, said Kalousek.  She pointed to a portion of the tennis court parking lot that has been sectioned off in the past two weeks to provide space for a sidewalk.

Atlee Connor and Piotr Gajewski, both employees of the Department of Public Work’s Office of Highway Engineering, listened carefully as community members enumerated exactly where crosswalks should be painted.

When someone mentioned that the curbing around the roundabout was insufficient to protect pedestrians, Connor explained that the curbing had been kept deliberately low so that trucks needing to make sharp turns could drive on them without tipping over.

Newly marked area for a sidewalk. Amy Roberts photo.

The construction of the roundabout markedly improved the flow of traffic in Cruz Bay. Although its design took advantage of all the available space, it still cannot accommodate large tractor trailers easily, he said.

Several people mentioned that island visitors who are not used to driving on the left did not know the proper way to merge into the roundabout.  They suggested lowering and lighting the yield signs in addition to painting signage on the roads.

In the campaign to make St. John more walkable, meeting-goers suggested engaging other community stakeholders; inviting business to “adopt” and maintain a stretch of road; and involving young people in projects to beautify their efforts.

Several people mentioned other critical spots for improvement, including the area near the ferry dock and the waterfront heading to Gallows Point.   Though Coral Bay was not included in the walkability audit, Kalousek said it would be considered in future planning sessions.

Anyone who is interested in joining the St. John Walkability Initiative should contact Kalousek at sjcf.org@gmail.com.