Free Wheeling? Chapel Hill Cyclists Need Safer Streets Now

This article was first published in the CHALT newsletter, November 2014

Chapel Hill leaders have talked a lot about bike safety and put up a fair number of signs marking bike routes, and The League of American Bicyclists even considered us a Bronze-level “Bicycle Friendly Community.” But Chapel Hill bicyclists are keenly aware of how dangerous it is to bike in our town, and fatal bike accidents recently bear that out. Read more on Chapel Hill Watch, “Ghost Bikes”.

Dr. John Pucher, a UNC graduate and professor of urban planning at Rutgers University, says American towns can learn from cities in Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, where cities got serious about safe bicycling and made major policy changes. Before the 1970s, bike accidents and fatalities increased as more and more cars competed with cyclists for space on the road. Then those cities invested heavily in making cycling safer and more convenient. They instituted traffic calming measures for neighborhood streets and built separate, protected bike lanes on major arteries to increase safety. As a result, it’s not just macho guys in spandex who are biking everywhere. In Denmark, 55 percent of all bike trips are made by women, and people over age 70 make 15 percent of their trips by bike.
Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany

In contrast, Chapel Hill has made few physical investments in safe biking. The oldest efforts are the white stripe along the shoulder of Cameron Avenue, and the pink cement bicycle lane built in the early 1980s along a stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard. For decades, the Biking Board advised the Town that separate lanes for cyclists were not needed and that bicycles and autos could mix safely. The town missed valuable opportunities to build lanes when roads were repaved, whereas Carrboro‘s tenacious public officials and staff convinced DOT to incorporate bike lanes on North Greensboro Street. Four years ago, our Town Council adopted a “Complete Street” policy that calls for adding bike lanes whenever a street is widened. Chapel Hill succeeded in getting bike lanes on Weaver Dairy Road and South Columbia when those streets were widened recently.
In 2009, at the behest of a few advocates, the Carolina North Development Agreement added plans for a bicycle connector, a mostly flat 3.7-mile route that would be relatively inexpensive to build, located entirely on public property (Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and DOT). From downtown and campus, cyclists would travel along a railroad right-of-way between Carrboro and Northside to reach Estes Drive Extension.

Carolina North is on hold, but this important north-south connector was made part of the Regional Transportation Plan and could still be built. A bicyclist coming from campus would travel along this route northward to Estes Drive. UNC has committed to providing sidewalks or a multipurpose path along Estes Drive to Carolina North. UNC completed a new bikeway this year from the future Carolina North campus to Homestead Road.

As a consequence of an identified need in the Comprehensive Plan, Chapel Hill hired Toole Design Group, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading planning, engineering and landscape architecture firm specializing in multi-modal transportation,” to develop a bike plan. A Toole Design team came to town last year and rode bikes all over town to begin their assessment. The completed plan can be found here.

It will cost millions of dollars to implement and require strong leadership from our elected officials. But if the Town is really serious about making Chapel Hill less dangerous for cyclists, it should fund and build safe bike routes on or near all major thoroughfares. John Pucher’s book City Cycling proves it can be done. He calls older women “the canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to bike safety. He says that until women over 50 feel safe and comfortable biking around Chapel Hill, we are not yet a truly bike-friendly town.

Cycling Plan Too Little, Too Late,  Adam Searing’s Editorial in the CH News,
Chapel Hill Rolls Out Safety Plan, CH News
Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill: A new advocacy group
Direct safety concerns to Police Chief Chris Blue at cblue@townofchapelhill.org
Cycling Savvy
Sharing the Road: Adapting to a New Culture of Cycling, Diane Rehm, WUNC
NC 86 Mobility and Pedestrian Safety Study, Highway Safety Traffic Institute, Aug 2004

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