As Raleigh contemplates levying a new infrastructure bond – somewhere between $200 and 250 million – we have an opportunity to consider what problems we are trying to solve, and what solutions will provide the best payoff.
Two hundred and fifty million is a lot of money. So far, it appears that “traffic” is the primary concern that this bond seeks to address. A recent poll by the City of Raleigh found traffic to be high on the complaint list among residents. Much of the congestion, of course, is due to poor land planning decisions over the last 50 years which emphasized low density suburbs and cul-de-sacs rather than compact development and gridded streets. In this, Raleigh is hardly alone, but research shows that road widenings seldom relieve congestion, rather encouraging more development and more cars.
And let’s put things in perspective. According to a recent study by INRIX, Charlotte won honors last year as queen of traffic in North Carolina, with drivers spending around 23 hours per year in congestion. Wilmington residents spent an average of 19.2 hours, with Raleigh coming in third with drivers enduring 18 hours average congestion per year.
So, our congestion is hardly paralyzing. Not even on par with Wilmington. And just for purposes of gloating, consider Atlanta, where drivers average nearly 71 hours per year in congestion. In hip Austin, Texas the average is 47 hours. Like these cities, we are a fast growing, urbanizing place, and we aspire to be a great place to work and live. We do need to invest in our infrastructure to anticipate future needs. But where?
Let’s consider another measure for ourselves – the number of cyclists commuting to and from work each day. Portland, Ore., often the leader in such things, sees 7.2 percent of its commuters on bikes (around 23,000 people) per day. And the growth of this number from 2000 to 2014 was over 300 percent. This is in good part due to strong bike lane, bikeway and greenway investments, as well as sound urban growth policies that began luring density back into the center of the city decades before other cites followed suit.
Raleigh, by contrast, boasts a meager .04 percent of commuters on bikes. This is a 32 percent increase since 2000, but still a slim number by any measure. And weather, an oft cited culprit, can’t be the issue – Minneapolis enjoys a 4.6 percent rate. Anchorage, Alaska sees 1.3 percent of commuters riding by bike. And let’s not even go to Europe – in Copenhagen, the number is around 50 percent.
So, what gives? To a large extent, our bike facilities investments have been aimed at leisure riders. We have a great greenway system. A ride on the Neuse Greenway can extend easily to 40 miles, from Falls Lake to Clayton, auto-free and wooded all the way.
But for the commuter who wants to ride from North Hills or Five Points into downtown, not so much. Ditto down by the fairgrounds. A million visitors a year in just the two weeks of the State Fair. Add home football and basketball games, Canes games, flea markets, monster truck pulls, and where are the sidewalks? We should be able to safely ride or walk to these events. Each bike commuter or walker is one less car on the road.
As we contemplate increased transit around the city and county, we need to knit our community together with safe, continuous infrastructure for walkers and bikers. We need to move from leisure rides along creeks and rivers to a more developed and useable nonauto transportation system. As other cities have found, if we build it, they will ride.
This new transit bond, which presumably will represent a forward thinking investment in our transit futures, should direct a significant amount of our tax dollars to this purpose. Many of our peer cities have invested heavily, and it has paid off.
If we put our minds and dollars to it, we can catch up to Anchorage, Minneapolis and maybe one day even Portland. We can address our traffic worries while making Raleigh a more safe and attractive place to visit, walk, bike, commute and live, and it might even be good for our health.
Ted Van Dyk, AIA, is Principal of New City Design Group and a member of the Wake County Planning Board.