Until mid-October, Elizabeth Hopkins had not encountered a significant problem between motorists and bicyclists. Then her friend Kent Winberry, an avid cyclist, was killed while riding in a bike lane on Duke University Road. As Winberry approached the intersection of Chapel Hill Road, a driver turned left in front of him.
"This changed everything," Hopkins told about 70 people who attended a recent Bike Durham public forum.
Tim Flynn's partner, Pamela Lane of Durham, was also an experienced cyclist. She was killed by a driver whose car was leaving a gas station in Chapel Hill.
"Cyclists are not respected," Flynn said. "We need to be accepted as a normal part of traffic. And that manifests itself in law enforcement, road design and how motorists need to operate around cyclists."
The deaths of Winberry, Lane and most recently, Tony Turner, who was killed in a hit-and-run on Roxboro Road, prompted the public forum, where, like nearly any gathering of cyclists, people exchanged horror stories of close calls with drivers scolding them and throwing bottles at their backs. Nonetheless, they ride the roads nearly every day as commuters, road racers or recreational cyclists. "I want to feel like I'm living," said Stuart Knoles, "not going from box to box."
That afternoon, the hashtag #DurhamDeservesBetter served as the beacon that guided the discussion about how to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.
(A crash map from the N.C. Department of Transportation shows reported accidents statewide from 2007–2012.)
Education, police enforcement of the traffic laws and improvements in infrastructure: Even though the League of American Bicyclists has scored Durham just a 3 or 4 out of 10 on these criteria, it is actually the low-hanging fruit.
More difficult is changing a culture that favors cars—fast cars—to one that embraces the carless.
"It's not just Durham, but an entire society," said Erik Landfried, chairman of the Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission.
For example, the Complete Streets plan calls for larger, more systematic changes in building or retrofitting roads for all users. Complete Streets is even mentioned in Durham's comprehensive plan. "But there's no teeth behind it," Landfried said.
Although the city has accomplished several goals—the completion of the car-free American Tobacco Trail, installing additional bike lanes and sharrows—arrows embedded in the street that tell motorists and cyclists that both share the road—that's only the beginning.
What's needed, advocates say, are more traffic-calming measures, designed to slow motorists, who, by the design of our roads, are actually encouraged to drive as fast as possible. These solutions include building tighter intersections, narrowing vehicles lanes to 10 feet, adding speed bumps and roundabouts—and asking police to enforce the speed limits.
"In fairness, [the city] was dealt a tough hand," Landfried said. "We're starting from a low base of what exists. So much of the city was built when sidewalks weren't required, and during the suburban development of the 1960s through the 1980s. It's going to take money and an effort and different priorities throughout the city."
But the Durham 2006 Bicycle Transportation Plan is outdated, the public policy version of working on an eight-year-old Mac computer. Durham is a different city, with a revitalized downtown, widespread development, light rail in the making—and more people—288,000 compared to 210,000 just eight years ago. And many new residents move here from bike-friendly cities in the Northeast and Northwest. The number of cycling commuters alone has increased from just 0.4 percent in 2000, to 1.4 percent today.
Mark Ahrendsen, Durham's transportation director, said his department is requesting money in the 2015–2016 budget to fund new bike and pedestrian plans. There is $120,000 in federal money available, which requires a $30,000 match from local sources.
With more cyclists in Durham—and a more organized cycling community—it's likely they will have more input into the plan and its goals than in 2006.
"The leadership in Durham wants better outcomes. This is not an openly hostile group of elected officials right now. This is a group who are all about it," Landfried said. "But there's not a clear articulation of how to get there."
Critics often point to cyclists' behavior as equally reckless—although cyclists are not cushioned by 2 tons of steel and plastic. "There are no saints in traffic," said Jack Warman, a board member of Bike Durham. "Everybody bends things in ways that are generally acceptable, whether it's gently rolling through a right on red or going 38 in a 35. It's unnecessary to paint with a broad brush the behavior of cars or cyclists. We're all just trying to get some place."
The Bike Durham forum wound down, with Post-It notes with ideas peppering the white board: "Call the mayor and head up a public awareness program." "Ally with other organizations." "City Council set up task force."
"No one wants to stop riding," Hopkins told the crowd. "We want to ride in the spirit of them."
Led by Lisa Miller of Seven Stars Cycles, the cyclists went on a memorial ride for Winberry, Lane and Turner. They gathered around Winberry's white ghost bike, its handlebars decorated with plastic orange and yellow flowers, is locked to a wooden pole.
Someone placed a bumper sticker inside the spokes of the tire. It read "I brake for people."
Read the 2006 Bicycle Transportation Plan, the report card from the League of American Bicyclists and a list of Durham bicycling accomplishments at www.indyweek.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "#DurhamDeservesBetter"