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Urban speed

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Lots of people are making note this month of the 50th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower's dream of an American autobahn, the interstate highway system. I celebrated by making a previously inconceivable day-trip to Wrightsville Beach on Interstate 40. Then I looked at the I-85 construction that's taking a corner of century-old Duke Park near my house and cringed.

These superhighways are a double-edged sword. They've made travel easier, sparked billions in commerce and turned isolated cities into vibrant regions greater than their parts. But they've also divided neighborhoods, enabled a spiral of sprawl and become their own self-fulfilling prophecies--growing ever wider and enticing new traffic guaranteed to make them inadequate all over again.

For engineers, it's a numbers game: The 80,000 motorists now using I-85 daily are predicted to become 130,000 by 2030. So the answer is an even uglier, eight-lane highway (cost: $270 million) with multi-lane crossings and access ramps, all based on numbers generated during the last decade of rapid growth. It's all about speed and safety, but there's no accommodation for changes likely to result from eventual $100-a-barrel oil.

There must be a better way. There is, but don't expect the road builders to come up with it--that's not their job.

"They have a point of view that is centered on the motorist and their safety, sometimes to the detriment of the impacts that happen to the surrounding communities," says Daniel Gottlieb, an unlikely highway philosopher. He's design director at the N.C. Museum of Art but got a taste of the way the DOT thinks while helping design the lovely pedestrian bridge across I-440 near the museum.

The answer, Gottlieb says: "The only way is to have very strong regional leadership, which you only see happening in a very few cities around the country."

Durham tried. Thanks to local input, County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow says I-85 will be among the best looking interstates in North Carolina with high, brick sound walls and irrigated plantings in the median. And sometimes it doesn't help. Durham County leaders got the DOT to agree to put medians in some local roads where they intersect I-85. But Reckhow says when she recently looked at construction on Guess Road, the medians weren't there. She was told DOT took them out at the last minute for fear they'd be hard for tractor-trailers to navigate.

"You try to humanize the road and make it so that it does work at the urban scale," she says, "and then you get an override."

And at Duke Park, DOT planners say a widened exit ramp required a turn lane cutting into the park. But Reckhow questions that, too: "Those blend-in lanes they create are almost more dangerous, because people try to use them as a passing lane."

But they're faster. Just what the neighborhood needs.

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