July 28, 2014

Road Worrier: Durham traffic-calming plan makes bike riders uneasy

Residents along West Club Boulevard in Durham have waited years, and worry about further delays, for a plan that would make drivers go more slowly and pedestrians feel more at ease.

The traffic on West Club Boulevard could use a bit of calming, for sure.

It’s a busy two-lane street with plenty of elbow room, 40 feet wide and straight as an airport runway. West Club is the preferred path for people in a hurry across north-central Durham, handling about 7,000 cars each day.

And these drivers do not slow down for the mere pedestrian. When you step into one of Club’s well-marked crosswalks, you may be forced to hop back onto the curb.

But residents of this oak-canopied neighborhood are divided over a long-postponed plan, recently revived by city engineers, to make drivers go more slowly and pedestrians feel more at ease.

Bike riders warn that the Club-calming project will actually make the street more dangerous for cyclists, whose numbers have tripled since the plan was hatched in 2001.

“We just want to make the street as safe as possible for all users,” said Erik Landfried, chairman of the Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, a city government board. “Not just motorists and pedestrians, but cyclists, too. All three.”

Many homeowners had hoped to see Durham build these street improvements years ago. They worry now that cyclists’ objections will cause more years of delay.

“If you’re waiting for the city to make it safer to cross the road with your kids, and by the time they do it your kids are in college, then you’ve waited too long,” said Jamie Gruener, president of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

The city built the first phase of its calming project in 2007: a raised median, planted in trees, that pushes drivers into narrow lanes along a one-block stretch where Club bisects the city’s Oval Drive Park. Durham officials say drivers are slowing down for the median – cutting average speeds from 40 mph down to the posted speed limit, 35 mph.

Phase two would produce a different kind of narrowing at five intersections stretching for three-quarters of a mile – from Maryland Avenue at the N.C. School of Science and Math to Georgia Avenue, just before Club ends at Hillandale Road.

Traffic would be funneled toward the center line by raised, eyebrow-shaped islands, built out from each corner, called neckdowns or chokers. City officials said two weeks ago that they hope to start building the chokers along West Club Boulevard next year.

The current design would squeeze cars and bikes into lanes just 10 feet wide at the five intersections. Cyclists say they won’t feel safe trying to ride alongside cars in that tight space.

Steve Schewel, a Club Boulevard resident and Durham City Council member, says he’s uneasy now when he approaches the narrow lanes at Oval Drive Park.

“I would definitely avoid riding my bike through there if there was a car coming up behind me – because it’s really tight there for a bicycle and a car,” Schewel said. “I would wait for that car to go by.”

On the neighborhood email list, cyclists are talking up an alternate design that would add new bike lanes slicing through the choker islands. Other residents are grumbling that cyclists waited too late to protest.

But they didn’t wait. Cycling advocates raised these objections several years ago – and city officials blew them off.

Cycling’s popularity grows

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission warned in a letter to Durham transportation administrators in 2010 that “the proposed chokers will decrease the safety of cyclists.” The commission called for a new design. Instead of offering to discuss safety issues and the pros and cons on each side, city officials responded curtly that they were sticking with their plan.

Bike riding has grown steadily in popularity around the Triangle – and nowhere more so than in the old residential neighborhoods that border Club Boulevard.

Six percent of all commuters in these Durham neighborhoods travel to work on their bicycles, according to the 2012 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s more bike commuters than anywhere else in the Triangle except Carrboro – and a sharp increase since the 2000 census, when bike commuting here was pegged at 1 percent to 1.6 percent.

“It is generational,” said Schewel, 63. “The people in my generation have been extremely concerned about the ability to cross Club, and trying to make Club more pedestrian-friendly. Then we have this younger generation who are living in the neighborhood, and more of them are cyclists. And they want to bike downtown to work, and they want to put their kids on their bikes and ride them to E.K. Powe (Elementary School).”

Gruener said the neighborhood association is not reconsidering its decision to support the planned chokers. Although the city’s official bike plan lists Club Boulevard among its priority routes for cyclists, some residents say bike riders should move their wheels to less-traveled side streets.

“I think the question is not necessarily whether bikers are going to feel unsafe in those sections of (Club), but whether that’s an appropriate place for bikers to be,” Gruener said.

Schewel is trying to exert his own calming influence. He thinks it’s possible to come up with a plan that would make Club safer for people on bikes as well as those on foot.

“But I also believe that would take several years,” Schewel said. “I think the neighborhood has been waiting a long time for the improvements. It really is a difficult choice.”

Better to wait and get it right, Landfried said.

“It may delay it, but this will last for decades,” Landfried said. “It’s really important that it be designed correctly, from the get-go, to meet all users’ needs.”

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