Chapel Hill: Opinion

Adam Searing: Cycling safety plan too little, way too late

The recent report that Chapel Hill has rolled out a bicycle and pedestrian safety plan in response to the death of cyclist Pamela Lane who was hit on the sidewalk on Martin Luther King Boulevard at Hillsborough Street left me disappointed but not surprised.

The crack “interdepartmental team” led by Town Manager Roger Stancil came up with some big electronic signs on a few main roads that flash “Watch for Bikes and Peds” and cut brush back at intersections. Groundbreaking future changes will include a WikiMap application and a few flashing lights at midblock crosswalks. The Police Department will be out “educating” pedestrians, cyclists and drivers as well.

This sort of bland, committee-driven and unimaginative set of so-called reforms characterizes Chapel Hill’s decades-long neglect of making cultural and structural changes that actually could encourage safe bicycling. I’ve been riding a bike regularly throughout much of Chapel Hill since the 1970s and, while our population has grown and many improvements have been made, our commitment to safe cycling hasn’t kept up with the times.

The MLK/Hillsborough Street area where Ms. Lane was hit is a case in point. The longest bike path in town empties onto a sidewalk on one of our busiest five-lane streets with nowhere obvious to safely go except exactly where Ms. Lane was riding – toward Hillsborough Street on the sidewalk. This bike and pedestrian path – the Bolin Creek Greenway – was completed 20 years ago! And it isn’t like the dangers here haven’t been known for a while. As a 2006 town report on the greenway noted: “Wrong-way and sidewalk bicycling have contributed to crashes in the corridor, and may result in part because the Bolin Creek Greenway can only be accessed from the sidewalk on the east side of the road.”

Anyone who regularly – and responsibly – rides a bike in Chapel Hill knows the dangers. For example, drivers routinely ignore the law at intersections, dashing out in front of cyclists. Just last week, my 8-year-old, riding on the sidewalk in the direction of traffic, came within inches of being hit by a headphone-adorned driver coming out of the University Mall parking lot onto Willow Drive who ignored both the stop sign at the intersection and me, four feet in front of her in a bright yellow jacket, attempting to warn her not to go before my son and I had a chance to finish crossing the intersection.

And are the Chapel Hill police really suggesting with their new enforcement regime that my older child – who cycles to Phillips Middle School every day up the MLK hill – ride in the street on the way home? That’s what was reported, but I’ll keep my advising my son and every other kid I know to stay on the sidewalk and away from the never-ticketed maniac drivers on that stretch of MLK (ironically directly in front of the police station). Just a few weeks ago a charter bus passed me there with about six inches to spare because the driver didn’t want to wait a few seconds for traffic to clear in the lane beside him so he could get by me safely.

Real solutions are needed, not more decades of inaction, if we want to make a difference for Chapel Hill bicyclists of all ages and abilities, especially after the tragic death of Ms. Lane. First, let’s make a commitment to reliably ticketing drivers who routinely ignore laws at intersections and crosswalks. Second, I’m tired of hearing about how state responsibility for roads trumps Chapel Hill’s ability to add bike lanes or build bike infrastructure. This is a political excuse that is wearing really thin in its fourth decade of use. We finally got bike lanes up Columbia Street – surely we can get one road with bike lanes on it into downtown! And if not lanes, let’s get creative with an actual dedicated trail – maybe working with UNC to improve the current trail through Battle Park might be one place to start.

Finally, we should expect our politicians to be more engaged. After Ms. Lane’s death I wrote a heartfelt note expressing both my worries about my son’s bicycling route and my thoughts for more action to Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and all the members of the Town Council. Our mayor didn’t respond and only three council members bothered to write me back. This is unacceptable. We need more extensive engagement from political leaders to move forward. Working together, I’m sure we can make significant and effective changes for safer bicycling in our town – it will just take more commitment from all of us.

Adam Searing lives in Chapel Hill.