(opinions) Duck Pond Spring

The Virginia Tech duck pond in the Spring, April 11, 2021

When preparing to come back to campus this fall, I was so excited to finally have in-person classes — that is, until I realized that I would actually have to commute to class. With online classes last year, I simply rolled out of bed and headed straight onto Zoom. This year, I now had to roll out of bed, physically get into a car, drive myself to campus and walk to class. As the first few weeks of class passed, I slowly adapted to this new change of pace. While my commute has become more bearable over time, my mind continues to fill with dread as I embark on my walk to class from the Duck Pond parking lot. 

With most of my classes on the far west side of campus, I choose to walk around the opposite side of the Duck Pond — the side which, unfortunately, does not have a sidewalk. It is a treacherous feat not for the faint of heart. Due to there being no sidewalk, students endure mud, grass, rocks and uneven terrain as they make the trek to class. While I’ll always have epic stories of my adventurous journeys to class, the walk from the Duck Pond is not ideal. Virginia Tech should consider extending the sidewalk around all sides of the Duck Pond to promote pedestrian and driver safety. 

Justin Owens, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Vulnerable Road Users group for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, described why sidewalks are beneficial on campus. 

“In general, sidewalks support safer and more environmentally friendly forms of transportation like biking and walking,” Owens said.

Sidewalks provide a designated safe space for pedestrians to walk around campus. They provide pedestrians with peace of mind as they have the freedom to travel without the added fear of sharing their space with drivers. However, the west side of the Duck Pond has no such space for pedestrians to walk safely, thus forcing pedestrians to share the road with cars. Students who choose to take this path must then consider whether getting to class faster is worth sharing the road with others. 

The lack of a sidewalk on the west side of the Duck Pond can also pose a threat to pedestrians at times when visibility is low. 

“About three quarters of pedestrian fatalities happen at night, with another 4% happening at dawn or dusk,” Owens said. “Anything we can do to get pedestrians out of the road in dim lighting has the potential to greatly improve pedestrian safety.”

An extension of the sidewalk would not only improve pedestrian safety during the day, but also at times when there is no daylight. During times when visibility is low, such as late at night or early in the morning, it is essential that sidewalks are available for pedestrians to use if they are to commute safely. Although streetlights line the road along Duck Pond Drive, it is nothing compared to the increased visibility provided by daylight. In addition to low visibility, the road curves, which could potentially prevent drivers from seeing pedestrians when it is dark outside. It is essential that pedestrians have a safe place to travel without having to share the road with drivers when visibility is low. 

While the solution may seem clear, extending the sidewalk around the Duck Pond would not come without expenses. 

“If I recall correctly, that street is pretty narrow and windy,” Owens said. “It would likely be a substantial cost investment to widen it to accommodate one or more sidewalks.”

Because the road along the west side of the Duck Pond is already narrow and curves significantly, there would be very little room to accommodate a sidewalk on either side. In addition to the cost of building a sidewalk, there is also the added expense of widening the road to accommodate the sidewalk in the first place. 

While the hopes of extending the sidewalk may be shattered by cost, it is important that both pedestrians and drivers prioritize safety when commuting.

“The most important thing pedestrians can do is assume that drivers cannot see them,” Owens said. “Ideally, this means avoiding being on the road at all, even if it means taking a slightly longer route. If pedestrians do have to be on the road, wearing reflective clothing at night can help, especially materials on major joints to increase visibility of motion.”

However, pedestrians cannot protect their safety by themselves. Drivers must also be aware of their surroundings at all times if accidents are to be avoided. 

“Research has consistently found that visual distractions like texting, fiddling with your phones and eating greatly increase the risk of a crash, so drivers should put down their phones and stay extra vigilant, especially when they’re in an area with a high chance of pedestrians,” Owens said.

Regardless of whether or not pedestrians are walking in an area without a sidewalk, they must remember that they are not always visible to drivers. Given the narrow and windy nature of Duck Pond Drive, both pedestrians and drivers must be aware of their surroundings and take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them. 

Despite the costly investment, Virginia Tech should consider expanding the sidewalk around the entirety of the Duck Pond to promote commuter and pedestrian safety. In the meantime, I’ll be saying goodbye to my trek along the Duck Pond and searching for an alternative route to class — even if it means rolling out of bed just a little earlier. 

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