The cyclists arrived at City Hall on Monday night en masse, flush with endorphins, sporting their sun-kissed brows and chiseled calves.
They, and many other Durhamites—even those who unfortunately had to drive to the meeting—were there to persuade City Council to approve a road diet for Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, or as it's formally known, U.S. 15-501 Business.
Earlier this month, the road diet's chances seemed precarious after City Council postponed a vote in order to collect more information, especially from business owners who opposed the plan. Many had attended a disorganized and confusing city meeting in April about the proposal, and thus rightly felt they had not been adequately heard.
One of the plan's opponents, Wayne Lee of Hair by Design, told Council he was concerned about the safety of his customers as they pulled out of his parking lot onto a narrower street. "We're not the enemy. We want a safer boulevard. But we should have been granted an opportunity to see this plan and be a part of it."
Meanwhile, Bike Durham had gathered more than 1,000 signatures supporting the road diet; the Boulevard neighborhoods of Rockwood, Tuscaloosa-Lakewood and Longmeadow also asked Council to vote for it.
And by last night, Council didn't take much convincing, voting 7–0 to approve the re-striping of the Boulevard, as it's casually known, to reduce the number of car lanes and add two for bikes.
Safety was the primary impetus for the proposal. Although the number of cars traveling the Boulevard has remained steady for at least 10 years—roughly 14,000 a day—the number of crashes has also remained high, two to three times greater than the accident rate compared with similar roads in North Carolina. Drivers routinely exceed the 35 mph speed limit, traveling as fast as 50 on the mile-long stretch, according to Mark Ahrendsen, Durham's transportation director.
Cyclists can't safely navigate the Boulevard. Pedestrians do so at their own peril. (I've walked the Boulevard many times; it's harrowing.) Joanne Andrews, an art teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School—she can see the Boulevard from her classroom window—told Council that administrators even forbid students from walking along or crossing the Boulevard, although many of them still do.
"This is a step in the right direction," Andrews said.
Many low-income people rely on bikes, walking or public transit to get around, as do people in their 20s and 30s. Nationwide, millennials, unwilling to be saddled with the expense of a car, use them less than previous generations, according to the Urban Land Institute. And roads must accommodate everyone.
"This creates a crucial link, a safe place for all residents regardless of their mode of transportation," said DeAnna Hall of the Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission.
The Champ Élysées, the Boulevard is not. Several council members noted that the original depictions of other grand streets with leafy medians, sidewalks and street lights bear no resemblance to the asphalt steppe of Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard.
Yet the Boulevard "is significant to the city of Durham. It connects six neighborhoods. It's a road with very interesting locally owned and operated businesses," said Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, owner of Guglhupf, who supported the plan.
That said, if you're waiting for Phase 2—sidewalks, traffic lights and crosswalks to adorn the Boulevard—well, it might happen (late) in your lifetime, but not Mayor Bill Bell's.
"I still personally have my doubts that this will work the way you think it will," said Bell, who turned 74 this year (but doesn't look a day past 55). You're not going to see Phase 2 in my lifetime, anyway."
While no one got everything he or she wanted in the deal, the cyclists took the evening as a win. They donned their helmets and rode off into the night, flashers blinking.
- The affected portion of Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard runs from the bridge (another landmark is the Hardee's) to University Drive.
- The number of car lanes will decrease from five to three.
- Bike lanes and buffers will be striped on both sides of the street.
- Twenty-one on-street parking spaces will be added on the north side of the street near Foster's Market.
- The N.C. Department of Transportation, which supports the plan, will begin repaving and restriping later this summer.