by Bob Geary
The City Council's public works committee held its long-awaited meeting on the issue last night. The verdict, by unanimous decision: There should be bike lanes on all of Hillsborough Street from downtown to the Fairgrounds. No exception for the Hillsborough Street Project (Phase 1, remember) in front of N.C. State. For a city trying to move from car-dominated sprawldom to walkable-bikeable metro, it's a huge step forward -- assuming it holds. Hillsborough Street has great symbolic importance for Raleigh. It's also a place where bikes could one day be the dominant form of transportation if given a chance.
Charles Duncan has a good writeup of last night's meeting on the Raleigh Public Record blog, including a schematic of the new road section. Up to now, the plans for the area of Hillsborough Street under construction, between Oberlin Road and Gardner Street, called for sharrows only -- no striped bike lanes. The committee's decision isn't the final one -- far from it -- but it's a critical breakthrough given who's on it. Russ Stephenson, the chair, is a Democrat and a long-time leader on planning issues for Raleigh. Bonner Gaylord, newly elected independent, comes out of the development community (he's general manager at North Hills) with a new-urbanist bent. (Close your eyes, and you might think it's Stephenson talking.) The third member, John Odom, is a Republican who's pro-business to the bone, but good planning and bike-ped transportation options are pro-business. Anyway, with this trio in enthusiastic agreement, look for a unanimous vote when their recommendation is taken up by the full Council next Tuesday. Then the comprehensive plan must be amended, Stephenson says, which will require a public hearing, probably in April, and then another vote. (The city's bike-pedestrian plan, with the sharrows-only approach for H.S. Phase 1, was incorporated into the new comp plan -- a good thing, actually.)
The only hitch in this giddyup may come from the state Department of Transportation, since Hillsborough Street is officially a state road. DOT's not a fan, city staffers report, of segmenting the two travel lanes in the Phase 1 scheme -- a single 16'-wide lane in each direction -- into a 10' vehicle section, a 4' bike-lane section and 2' to protect the bikes from "dooring" (doors opening out from parked cars). Especially since the center median on Hillsborough Street will mean there's no "give" on the left side of those 10' vehicle lanes for your buses, trucks and Hummers, it gives some folks at DOT the jeebees, apparently.
But with DOT board member Nina Szlosberg-Landis, founding mom of the Hillsborough Street Partnership, on board for bike lanes (she spoke last night), state approval seems like it's in reach. And truly, 10' is plenty wide unless you're exceeding the forthcoming 25 mph speed limit.
If DOT goes along, the bike lanes will be striped as soon as the construction work is done -- sometime this summer, in other words.
Kudos to Will Alphin and his cycling friends, who've made the case for bike lanes over a period of many months to many groups, and to Stephenson, who's had their back all along. Also to Eric Lamb, the city's road planner, who's made a gradual move from "uh, maybe" to "sure, why not?"
There was a case to be made for sharrows: Bikes should, in theory, be able to share a single travel lane with motorized vehicles when the posted speed limit is low. But Alphin & Co. made a stronger case that an undifferentiated 16'-wide lane would invite motorists to speed down the center of it -- the logical place for them to go. Their speed (35-40 mph?) would force cyclists out of the lane and into "dooring" territory, a very dangerous place to be.
Someday, perhaps, there will be so many bicycles on Hillsborough Street that they'll own the road, and the motorists will need the sharrows. But that day won't come until cyclists perceive that the street is safe -- only then will their numbers start to build.