In the past few weeks the city has painted fresh stripes on 28 miles of streets – shoving the double-yellow center lines a few feet to the left or right, subtracting automobile lanes here and there, and adding lanes for bicycles.
As Raleigh learned when it slowed cars and widened sidewalks on Hillsborough Street near N.C. State University, it may be hard to make our streets happier places for some folks without making them unhappier for others.
The idea here is to make cyclists feel more comfortable sharing city streets with motorists, and to encourage more Raleigh commuters to ride their bikes to work. But the initial effect was to sow confusion among bikers and drivers alike.
Check out Glen Eden Drive, a wide and hilly residential street that runs west from Glenwood Avenue.
“It’s a mess now,” cyclist John Adams, 72, told the Road Worrier. “It’s weird. It looks like a sampler of all the different ways you can do a bike lane. I’m not sure what they’re up to.”
White stripes have been laid down to create 6-foot-wide bike lanes on uphill stretches of Glen Eden. On-street parking options are preserved, so cyclists travel between parked cars on the right and moving cars on the left.
At the top of each hill, the bike lane fades away and “sharrows” take over. Sharrows are pavement-stencil symbols combining chevrons and a bike, with a “share the road” message. So after bikers use a separate lane for the uphill climb, they’re supposed to mingle with drivers for the downhill run.
Take a long look down Glen Eden and you see the bike lanes move from one side to the other and back again. In the same way, the center yellow lines meander left and right.
All these changes for the half mile between Blue Ridge and Edwards Mill roads. There are no parking lanes here, and the bike lanes run next to the curb on both sides.
There’s extra confusion as Glen Eden approaches the stop light at Ridge Road. The automobile lane becomes a left-turn-only lane. The bike lane turns into the through-traffic lane. Drivers who don’t want to turn left sometimes find themselves swerving into the bike lane.
“It’s like someone’s trying a new design,” said Jim Sprinkle, 64, who lives just off Glen Eden. “Everyone I’ve talked to thinks it is screwed up. It just isn’t laid out in a way that most people could understand it. We’re worried bikers are going to get run over out there, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Complete Streets godmother
In the past decade, Raleigh and other cities, and the state Department of Transportation as well, have begun to regard streets as more than just conduits for as many cars as possible – and cyclists as something other than traffic obstructions. The ideas come under a transportation philosophy known as Complete Streets.
Nina Szlosberg-Landis of Raleigh is the godmother of Complete Streets in North Carolina. In 2011, during the closing months of her tenure on the state Board of Transportation, she persuaded the board to make Complete Streets a guiding principle for transportation planning.
Now when DOT planners widen a highway, they look for ways to make the road better for pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders. A repaving project presents a low-cost opportunity for re-striping that can add bike lanes or, at least, wide paved shoulders.
In 2009, just three-tenths of one percent of Raleigh folks commuted to work by bike. The city had 4 miles of bike lanes. City transportation planners set a goal of quadrupling bike use within six years. To help make that happen, they added miles of sharrows and bike lanes between 2009 and 2014.
With the latest batch of bike improvements, which will get their finishing touches in the next week or two, Raleigh now has 65 miles of streets with sharrows or bike lanes.
“I’m very excited,” said Szlosberg-Landis, who bikes on Raleigh’s streets and greenways. “I’m proud the city is doing it.”
The pattern of uphill bike lanes and downhill sharrows also was applied on Dixie Trail and North Hills Drive to accommodate residents who didn’t want to lose on-street parking.
“We had seen this asymmetrical treatment deployed in Asheville, and we thought it would be a good fit here,” said Eric Lamb, Raleigh’s transportation planning manager. He said cyclists have more need for separate lanes when they’re moving slowly uphill, with a greater risk of collision with faster cars that pass them.
He said the streets where automobile lanes were reduced – including parts of Hillsborough, Tarboro Road and Salisbury Street – will have no trouble handling traffic levels expected in coming years.
City planners once produced an instruction manual to help drivers navigate an eccentric, two-lane roundabout on Hillsborough Street. Confusion was blamed for a profusion of crashes, which ended as soon as the two-ring circuit was redesigned with a simpler single lane.
Traffic engineers probably will make adjustments at the intersection of Ridge and Glen Eden roads, and they will check back with residents, motorists and cyclists on Glen Eden and other streets to see if other changes are needed on the newly bike-enhanced streets.
But Lamb said drivers and cyclists will figure things out.
“I think most of the cyclists get it,” Lamb said. “If there’s uncertainty, drivers can slow down. ... Some of the changes have been abrupt to people, but that should settle down.”