Nearly a month after a local cyclist was killed on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the town has a renewed focus on bicyclist and pedestrian safety.
The work started with a new, interdepartmental team of law enforcement, planning, traffic engineering, Chapel Hill Transit, public outreach and parks and recreation staff, the town’s Transportation and Connectivity Board and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill.
The team worked with Town Manager Roger Stancil to identify immediate changes, including digital “high-crash area” warning signs, a WikiMap application, pedestrian-activated crosswalk lights and cutting back brush at intersections. Bike route and road upgrades will take time and money.
The MLK-Hillsborough Street intersection doesn’t offer easy solutions, in part because MLK Boulevard is a state highway controlled by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The corner gas station exits onto both streets, and just uphill, the Bolin Creek Greenway empties onto the sidewalk. With no easy way across the street, most cyclists and pedestrians go down to Hillsborough Street to cross safely.
Pamela Lane of Durham was riding her bike south on that sidewalk when she fatally collided Oct. 3 with a driver leaving the gas station. The driver was not charged.
State law typically requires cyclists to ride in the road with traffic, but sidewalk rules are local laws.
While the town lets cyclists share the sidewalk in several areas of town, including that part of MLK Boulevard, there is a caveat, Chapel Hill Police Lt. Josh Mecimore said last week: Among the local rules is a requirement that sidewalk cyclists still ride in the same direction as traffic. Cyclists coming off the greenway are supposed to walk their bike downhill to Hillsborough Street, he said.
An informal survey found that isn’t common knowledge, although greenway and street signs in the area direct cyclists to follow the bike route north or to turn off early at Bolinwood Drive for a safer route downtown. No signs appear to clearly state the rules.
UNC grad student Kate Moore was biking home from Trader Joe’s on the greenway. She moved to Carrboro two months ago from Seattle, where she was a regular cyclist. She didn’t know about the local rule.
It would be good to have more bike network connections, she said, and East Franklin Street could be less bumpy. Still, she’s impressed with local biking and thinks most drivers share the road, she said. Cyclists operate differently here, however, and now she does, too.
“I’ll go in the crosswalks. I’ll go on the sidewalks sometimes,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t really do that in the city, because most people don’t, but here I’ve noticed a lot of bicyclists don’t signal or follow traffic laws. I think a lot of drivers get frustrated.”
Carrboro Police Department Capt. Chris Atack said that’s been his experience in Carrboro, where congestion and enforcement keep most drivers in check, but he regularly sees cyclists and pedestrians skirting traffic laws. Everybody needs to adopt safer habits, he said.
Crash, collision data
Drivers hit roughly 2,200 pedestrians and 960 cyclists each year in North Carolina, according to UNC Highway Safety Research Center data. Between 150 and 200 pedestrians and about 23 cyclists are killed, most on streets with a 35 mph speed limit or lower, data shows.
Chapel Hill police reported 41 bike crashes in the past five years, Mecimore said. While some involved just the cyclist, others pitted cyclists against cars, pedestrians and other cyclists, he said. One person was killed, one disabled, 13 had evident injuries and 21 had possible injuries, he said.
Kumar Neppalli, the town’s engineering services manager, said he shared Lane’s accident report with the N.C. Department of Transportation and is awaiting a response.
Police Sgt. Celisa Lehew said Chapel Hill officers are canvassing heavily traveled areas to educate pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, and to enforce local and state laws. Carrboro and Chapel Hill both joined the state’s Watch for Me NC traffic safety campaign in 2011; it’s going on now, she said.
“It’s definitely an ongoing education and enforcement campaign,” Lehew said. “Being a college town, new students come in every year. It’s a long-term commitment.”
The biggest issue downtown could be the number of cyclists riding without helmets, a few weaving in and out of traffic or around pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Also on MLK Boulevard one day last week, many drivers blew by pedestrians waiting to cross. One woman narrowly missed being hit when a car in the left lane stopped for her, but another didn’t and swerved to miss her.
UNC nursing students Mary Catherine Heideman and Diane Leadbetter made it across two lanes. They waited on the pedestrian refuge island, chatting as cars whizzed by; two drivers finally stopped.
They sometimes jaywalk, especially if there’s no crosswalk at bus stops, the women said. They also would like to see wider sidewalks.
“You have to dodge poles and plants that are half the size of the walkway,” Heideman said. “I think being a pedestrian and trying to get around, in combination with bikers and runners, it’s just too many people.”
The Chapel Hill Bike Plan ( bit.ly/1uGbDZ5), adopted this year, plans major changes to roads and routes, including roughly $14 million in short-term upgrades, new bike lanes and road markings.
“We are determined to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety in Chapel Hill,” said Stancil, the town manager. “When (town employees) work together to design solutions, we can expect excellent outcomes. We also intend to work closely with our residents toward these shared goals.”