Driving up Roxboro Road in Durham at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday is a harrowing experience. Motorists change lanes like they are playing a video game. Trucks bear down on you at high speeds. People on bikes go the wrong way on a 45 mph road. Kids are forced to walk along the tall grasses that line the road.
I drove this stretch of road to attend a public meeting the N.C. Department of Transportation held to solicit comments on the proposed widening of the intersection of Roxboro Road and Latta/Infinity Road. The literature that NCDOT handed out referred to this project as “improvements” and claimed that, without it, increased auto traffic would lead to delays that would be “unacceptable.” These are subjective statements made to seem objective and universally held.
The real question, then, is, “improvements” for whom? “Unacceptable” to whom?
The answer in this case is motorists who live in northern Durham County and Person County who are trying to get to points south like downtown Durham, the Duke/VA medical area, and RTP.
While these commuters may find some minor and very short-term congestion relief, they are not the only users of this intersection. The intersection is home to several businesses, including a grocery store, pharmacy, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. For these businesses to succeed, customers need access to them. By widening the road and installing medians, this project restricts that access for all types of users, whether they arrive via car, bus, on foot, or on bike.
There are bus stops near this intersection, but no safe way to cross the street. Even if crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, and pedestrian signals are added, it will be at least 120 feet to the other side of each leg of the intersection, which takes the average person 35 to 40 seconds to complete on foot and even longer for those with mobility impairments. While plan documents tout added sidewalks and bike lanes, they do not connect with any existing facilities. When asked whether crosswalks will be included in the project, an NCDOT engineer told me that they were being “considered.” Providing a safe way for people to cross a street on foot should not be a consideration, it should be standard.
Delving into the demographics of those affected by these “improvements” reveals who will benefit from this project and who will not. The motorists who live in northern Durham County, the beneficiaries in this case, have, on average, higher incomes and are whiter than the rest of Durham County as a whole. Public transportation users in Durham have, on average, lower incomes than the rest of the county. About 77 percent of users of Route 9B, which serves this intersection, identify themselves as black. The neighborhoods just southeast of this intersection, all within easy walking and biking distance, are also 77 percent black. For people without private vehicles, widening the road just makes it harder for them to get where they need to go.
Any improvements made to this intersection need to benefit everyone who uses it, including those who work and shop at the local businesses, and people who are not in cars or trucks. NCDOT developed their very own set of Complete Street guidelines in 2012 to help them design better and safer intersections for all users. If NCDOT chooses to not follow their own guidelines, then the city of Durham, which is funding half of the project, must demand better outcomes that provide a more equitable transportation network for all of its citizens.
Anything less is unacceptable.
Erik Landfried is a member of the Durham Coalition for Complete Streets.