by: Josh Factor
Growing up just a stone’s throw from the American Tobacco Trail, I could basically ride before I could walk. So you can imagine my excitement when our fair city was designated a bicycle friendly community by the American League of Bicyclists, but lately it seems that friendliness has declined.
Much attention to biking safety was briefly paid a couple years back, when 36-year-old Seth Vidal became a victim of callous circumstance, killed by 27-year-old Maceo Kemp, Jr. and his car on Hillandale Road in 2013. The notoriety of this incident led to skepticism as to whether or not the roads are truly safe for Durham bicyclists and it wasn’t an isolated event.
A more recent bicycling accident occurred just a few months ago as another cyclist was hit and killed riding down Highway 98. Comments from neighbors to the media revealed they generally believe their area to be unsafe for cyclists.
John Mansueto told WNCN, “You couldn’t pay me to ride a bike on this road any time of the day. I don’t even like going to get my mail.”
The title of Bicycle Friendly Community only lasts four years, and our city’s is set to expire at the end of 2018. We’ll be reevaluated by the league at that time to see if we still live up to their standards, and if we don’t clean up our act, there’s a very real chance we may have this title revoked.
So what can we as citizens do to insure this doesn’t transpire? Well, first and foremost, we need to be more conscientious of bicyclists and do a better job of sharing the road. It is crucial for drivers to reflexively leave room on their right for people on bikes, even if there is no bike lane on that road.
One thing I can observe personally, is that the city needs to work on putting in more contiguous bike lanes. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a bike lane simply end in the middle of a road, leaving bicyclists with virtually nowhere to go, forcing a snap and potentially risky decision.
This has become a hot topic along West Club Boulevard. The residents of Watts-Hillandale are considering re-striping the street to include bike lanes, increase pedestrian visibility, and alternating parking availability from one side of the road to the other at each block. They recently held a meeting to discuss the viability of said plans (which I attended).
The primary concern of the residents seemed to be the safety aspects of the plan. Some of the residents believe many drivers won’t abide by the new speed limits or respect the new bike lanes and crosswalks. Another concern is that the crosswalks will be low-visibility and thus actually make it harder for people to cross the wide street.
This is especially important for the kids walking to schools in the West Club Boulevard area as the residents want assurances that the children will be safe.
The other major concern was that neither the residents, nor the City of Durham did any research on the number of bicyclists using the street before they proposed the restriping plan. They explained, however, that they fully intend to gauge the number of bicyclists who use that road on a regular basis before deciding whether or not to restripe. (How we have yet to hear…)
Of course, it’s not all unease and concern. Some residents believe that, in terms of transportation, this plan will be a good balance. At the moment, the community seems split on this issue, which is intended as an experiment to see if the bike lanes would be more effective.
As to how they’ll determine whether or not the experiment will bring about better traffic conditions, the State Department of Transportation keeps track of all types of accidents, be it bike, car, truck, or otherwise. If they see a decrease in vehicular and bike incidents on West Club Boulevard, then they’ll presume the experiment was successful.
I had a chance to see the road for myself and it looks wide enough to put in bike lanes without drivers feeling too constricted. If approved, the project will go into effect sometime before the end of 2016, but there hasn’t been any word yet on when a decision will be made.
I think this project has the potential to be a successful provided drivers abide by the rules and respect the bike lanes. As long as drivers maintain that mentality—it is all about being aware and conscious of bikers in this kid-friendly neighborhood—West Club Boulevard can continue to be a bicycle-friendly corridor.
Josh Factor is an avid writer, a native of Durham, NC and a 2016 graduate of Elon University, where he majored in English.