Safer streets

Student concerns prompt City Council action on south-campus traffic

A makeshift memorial still stands at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut streets, where Nickolas Klein was killed last March.

A makeshift memorial still stands at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut streets, where Nickolas Klein was killed last March.

Photo by Ken Smith

Nickolas Klein started the spring 2015 semester expecting to earn his degree by summertime, but no one could have predicted the circumstances under which it would be awarded.

On March 18, the 21-year-old known for his love of video games and heavy metal, who was hailed by friends as “a genius,” was killed after being struck by an SUV at the intersection of West Seventh and Chestnut streets. In light of Klein’s honor student status and impending graduation, university administration granted him a posthumous bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Klein’s death triggered two independent student efforts to address pedestrian safety issues in the heavily student populated south-campus area, where residents say close calls are commonplace. They helped lead to a comprehensive traffic study currently being conducted by city of Chico staff, which could lead to big changes in the neighborhood in coming years.

Two of Klein’s friends, Dillon Mitchler and Shane Smith, started a petition on website calling for stop signs to replace yield signs in all residential areas of downtown Chico last March. It gathered more than 1,200 signatures in a matter of weeks. Then, at the June 9 City Council meeting, Chico State health and community services professor Joni Meyer presented the results of two group projects done by students in her drugs and society class—another petition hand-signed by more than 500 students, and information about installing more street lights in the area.

Councilman Andrew Coolidge said it was the students’ work that led him to push for the council to take action. The topic was discussed in depth at a July 8 Internal Affairs Committee meeting, of which Coolidge is a member. And at its Aug. 4 meeting, the City Council called for the traffic study.

“I felt like, if you have 1,200 students supporting a safety measure, then that’s definitely something to take a closer look at,” said Coolidge, who initially pushed for the immediate installation of stop signs.

“I’ve been in Chico for 20-plus years and those signs never made sense to me,” he continued. “They are fine for some other neighborhoods, and they may have worked there 50 years ago or whenever they were installed, but now they’re just plain dangerous, and needed to be changed yesterday.”

As for street lights, Coolidge said he has long supported a move to LED lights, which he said are brighter, more eco-friendly, would lead to long-term savings on power bills for the city and could also positively impact other public safety issues.

Chico Police Department Deputy Chief Dave Britt was among those who pushed for a broader study: “As a department, we advocate that any changes to traffic control systems and signage be data-based and not just kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” he explained. Britt acknowledged the entire west side of downtown, including the south-campus area and the Nord Avenue-Walnut Street corridor, have a high rate of accidents compared with the volume of traffic. Another Chico State student, 18-year-old Nicholas Castellos, was killed while crossing Walnut Street at West Fifth Street on Jan. 16.

Acting Public Works Director Brendan Ottoboni, who is overseeing the traffic study, presented preliminary data to the Internal Affairs Committee and City Council showing the number of traffic accidents from 2006 to June 2015 at each intersection in the area. The most problematic spots are on Chestnut Street. At West Seventh and Chestnut streets, where Klein was killed, an estimated 2,500 vehicles pass through daily, and there have been 13 accidents there since 2006, making an average of 1.51 accidents per million vehicles. An average of 2,200 vehicles pass through West Sixth and Chestnut streets daily with 11 accidents over those years, for 1.45 accidents per million vehicles. Both have yield signs.

In comparison, the intersection at Salem and West Second streets, where traffic is controlled by a stoplight, sees an average of 15,000 vehicles daily and was the site of 19 accidents, or .37 crashes per million vehicles.

Ottoboni said the study will be done in phases. The first phase includes counting the actual number of cars, bikes and pedestrians that travel through each intersection daily. Staff also will collect verbal surveys and gather input from those who live in the area. Ottoboni said he hopes to have much of this data collected to present to City Council on Oct. 6.

Future phases will further examine signage, lighting, sidewalks and parking, and explore costs and funding mechanisms for improvements. The ultimate idea is to make south-campus thoroughfares into “complete streets,” a term Ottoboni used to describe modern roads that take pedestrians, cyclists and motorists—as well as driving and parking needs—into equal account.

Chico State professor LaDona Knigge of the university’s Geography and Planning Department has already offered her and her students’ services for the study, Ottoboni said, noting Knigge and her classes also participated in a traffic study for the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood.

“We want to reach out to the university as much as possible because the student population has such a significant impact in that area,” he said. “This is a perfect example of something the city and the university can do together, and we hope to work with students to come up with some solutions.”

Meyer plans to organize a “night out” walk, during which students and City Council members can inspect the intersections together, in the near future. She also said Klein’s and other student deaths are about more than signage and street lights, but a bigger problem—drug and alcohol abuse. She estimates an average of two students have died as a direct result of such abuse every semester since she began teaching at the university in 2012.

“Unfortunately, our memories are short,” she said. “The students don’t live here, so they get sent home in a body bag and everyone forgets about what happened.”

Deputy Chief Britt confirmed that the driver who struck Klein, another Chico State student named Juan Campos, was intoxicated and driving above the speed limit when he hit Klein.