North Carolina towns and cities will find it harder to convert car lanes to bike lanes on some roads if new Senate-approved restrictions become law.
The legislation would outlaw any “road diet” project that removes automobile lanes to make room for bike lanes on a busy state road traveled by more than 20,000 cars a day – or on a road where the change will significantly degrade traffic flow over the next 20 years.
Just as the Senate was inserting the bike-lane limits into a House bill Monday night, the Durham City Council was voting to approve a road diet that will transform a one-mile retail strip on U.S. 15-501 Business, between Chapel Hill Road and University Drive.
The five-lane road is lined with bank branches, gas stations, fast-food outlets and popular cafes. It will be reduced to three automobile lanes with bus pull-outs, some on-street parking and two lanes for bicycles.
Business owners along this strip, also called Chapel Hill Boulevard, are hoping the changes will make the road safer for drivers and more inviting for bike riders from nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s basically a five-lane asphalt racetrack now,” said Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, owner of the Guglhupf bakery and restaurant. “It just invites cars to travel a lot faster than the speed limit. And it’s always been a very hard road to cross, to walk along, or try to make a left-hand turn.”
It wasn’t clear this week whether the Durham plan could be threatened by the Senate’s proposed bike-lane limits. The restrictions were added with other regulatory changes to House Bill 44, which was shipped Wednesday to a House-Senate conference committee.
Cycling advocates argued that legislators should let the state Department of Transportation decide where it’s a good idea – and where it’s not – to make space for bike lanes, sidewalks and other improvements by trimming one or two car lanes.
Road diets as safety projects
“The problem with the bill is that it’s overly proscriptive,” said Lisa Riegel, executive director of BikeWalk NC, a non-profit group that promotes pedestrian and bicycle improvements. “We view these road diets as safety projects, and they are also economic development projects.”
But Mike Holder, DOT’s chief state engineer, said the Senate language “is good and is compliant with our current policies.” He said he wouldn’t want to reduce car lanes if doing so would cause traffic congestion in the future “and we would need that capacity back in 20 years.”
Senate Republicans added the bike limits after Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham County Democrat, complained about an earlier version of the legislation that would have given the state Board of Transportation veto power over road diet plans. Senate staffers and the bill sponsor worked with him to allay his concern, he said, but the rewritten bill would flatly ban road diets in some situations.
“They ended up making that worse,” Woodard said. “Maybe they thought they were fixing it.”
The Board of Transportation’s Complete Streets policy encourages road diets and other measures to make roads more accommodating for buses, cyclists and pedestrians. The lanes usually are redrawn at minimal expense – simply changing the pavement paint stripes – after DOT engineers and city officials agree on the redesign.
DOT has worked with city planners previously to convert car lanes to bike lanes on West Main and Chapel Hill streets in Durham, and on Hillsborough Street and Avent Ferry Road in Raleigh. There are similar plans in downtown Raleigh for road-diet treatments on Wake Forest Road and Blount and Person streets.
In Durham, DOT plans to add the bike lanes and parking when it repaves U.S. 15-501 Business later this year. It’s a hectic road now, where drivers routinely exceed the 35 mph speed limit and police report more than 30 crashes each year.
DOT engineers have said that automobile counts are low on U.S. 15-501 Business, around 14,000 a day, and three lanes will be sufficient in the future. But DOT has not conducted additional studies that might be required if the Senate restrictions become law.
Mark Ahrendsen, the city transportation director, said he believes that “what’s proposed for 15-501 would qualify” for a road diet under the Senate plan.
Local business owners were divided over the road diet plan, with some worried that they would lose customers. But council members were convinced after studies in Charlotte and elsewhere showed that road diets can improve safety without choking economic activity.
“I do business at Mechanics and Farmers Bank (on 15-501 Business), and traffic is normally a nightmare,” Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said Monday. “If this will slow the traffic, I certainly want to support it.”
Patrick Edwards, general manager of Foster’s Market, wasn’t sure how it will work out.
Crosswalks and sidewalks needed
“I’m for changing the road, but I don’t think the way they’re doing it is the best,” Edwards said. “I think they’re right, the traffic needs to be slowed down. But we need crosswalks and sidewalks and stoplights.”
Next door to Foster’s, three of Kemmet-Cooper’s employees have been injured in traffic accidents in the 17 years since she opened Guglhopf.
“It’s frightening,” Kemmet-Cooper said. “One of our bakers commuted with his bicycle. He got hit while standing in the turning lane, to turn into our parking lot.”
While she hopes the city and DOT will do more for Chapel Hill Boulevard in the future, she sees the road diet as a good start.
“I think it will work,” Kemmet-Cooper said. “By taking away that broad road and making it more of a neighborhood road, it will instinctively lighten the foot on that gas pedal.”