Call her Supermom. On her walk home from work in downtown Durham, Natalie Spring manages to hold a conversation, her purse and a grocery bag, all while breastfeeding her 8-month-old daughter, whose whimpers say she's too hungry to wait until they get home.
But one of the most challenging parts of Spring's commute is something she's been doing her whole life: crossing the street. It's not so easy in downtown Durham, she says. Getting to her toddler's day care, Spring treks in her clogs across five lanes of traffic on North Roxboro Street to beat the oncoming wave of cars—among the 11,000 vehicles that traverse that stretch of Roxboro each day. This is just one gauntlet along the Durham Loop, downtown's one-way street that, to pedestrians and cyclists, often feels like a mini-freeway.
"You get dirty looks from drivers," Spring said about crossing certain intersections. "There are people who just change lanes and drive right past you and go faster."
Blame it on bad design—everyone else does. That's why city officials are hoping to soon make the Loop more accessible by changing it to a two-way route, following recommendations made years ago in the Downtown Durham Master Plan. This month, city staffers showed citizens a couple of options for a proposed $25 million improvement of the connector. They plan to take a revised proposal to the City Council early next year, but any improvements still lack funding.
For many of its 40-plus years, the Loop has been a headache for motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and developers. It's confusing: In less than one mile, the street changes names four times and forks even more often. Many of the streets inside the Loop go only one way, which hampers drivers' attempts to get inside the city's center and limits the ever-necessary U-turn.
Though the Loop was designed to allow traffic to flow around downtown fairly quickly, "It's had some fairly negative effects, creating a physical barrier to downtown because of the one-way navigation," said Mark Ahrendsen, the city's transportation director. "It's created an environment that is rather unfriendly to pedestrians, in terms of the number of lanes of traffic they have to cross."
Often, it's dangerous: While many, particularly newcomers, tend to putter along while learning their way, others treat the wide lanes like a speedway. They zoom in short bursts between stoplights, moving faster than the 25 mph and 35 mph speed limits, citizens reported recently at a city meeting. There, traffic engineers from Kimley-Horn & Associates sought to gather public input on two proposals to modify the Loop. Both proposals minimize costs by using existing roads, curbs and other infrastructure, while changing traffic lights and lanes.
Whichever plan is ultimately enacted, changing the Loop to a two-way passage will slow traffic. Adding right- and left-turn lanes at more intersections will increase the time motorists spend at traffic lights. It's possible habitués of the route could be swapping one source of frustration for another.
But in the words of Carl Hultgren, one of Kimley-Horn's engineers, "With one-way and two-way traffic, there's always a tradeoff between access and mobility."
Under one plan, North Roxboro Street between Main and Holloway streets would become a two-way road, with traffic flowing downhill behind Durham County Social Services on Main Street.
Under the second plan, Roxboro Street would remain one-way and the Loop would stretch two blocks farther east. Ramseur Street, which now branches off the south side of the Loop to lead to Fayetteville Street, would become a two-way thoroughfare. It would lead to Dillard and Holloway streets, then back west to Roxboro Street and around to the Loop's existing north side. Under both proposals, Mangum Street, which now carries traffic south through the middle of the Loop, would remain one-way.
The proposals garnered a mixed reception. Several cyclists urged the city to paint a designated bike lane around the route. Some residents took issue with roads that would remain one-way even after the change.
One resident wanted the Loop to remain one-way. Scott Harmon, a downtown resident and architect, said making the Loop bi-directional would complicate many intersections and compound other problems. He urged the city to take more time and consider a complete overhaul of the design, not just lower-cost fixes.
"I feel like we're spending not enough money too soon," Harmon said.
Many wanted the city to do more to restore what it was before the one-way loop: regular grids and 90-degree intersections at the east and west ends, instead of wayward curves.
"Anything that could be done to connect our neighborhood to downtown would be really helpful," said Spring, who lives in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood northeast of downtown. "And a lot less scary."
She and other walkers pointed to the problematic intersection on the Loop's east end. To enter downtown near City Hall from eastern neighborhoods, walkers must traverse three one-way avenues, stopping at skinny medians. There are crosswalks but no traffic light. Hopping from median to median feels like starring in your own video game, but here, you don't get extra lives.
"Once you're inside the Loop, it's fantastic," Spring said of the newly upgraded paving on Main and Chapel Hill streets. "There's wide sidewalks and the crosswalks are all marked."
It's getting there that's the problem.