Club Blvd. traffic plan riles cyclists

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 06:11 PM

Traffic-calming plans for a four-block stretch of West Club Boulevard have split a key neighborhood group and area bicycle riders, creating a dispute the City Council could have to address before awarding a construction contract early in 2015.

The plan calls for the installation of “neck-downs” at five intersections along West Club in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood.
The additions will narrow the roadway and thus give motorists a reason to slow down. They also will reduce the time pedestrians are exposed to traffic as they cross the street.
But some local bikers object, saying the narrowing of the pavement at the intersections will force them to weave in and out of the primary traffic flow, to their peril.
The proposal is “in fact a lethal idea,” given experience that “very few drivers want to slow down and wait for a cyclist to clear out” of similarly narrowed intersections, project critic Bruce Too said in one of the many emails people on the Watts-Hillandale’s email list have traded on the subject.
The $350,000-or-so project nonetheless remains on track for officials to take bids on in December and begin building in May, city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said.
He added that the city likely will move forward “unless we receive direction from the neighborhood requesting [that] we do something differently.”
So far, that’s appeared unlikely, as many Watts-Hillandale activists are eager for the city to get cracking on a project officials first promised in 2001.
They fear a redesign would only further delay a project Ahrendsen acknowledges sat on the back burner for several years while officials focused on street-repair and economic-stimulus initiatives.
Any additional postponement will put traffic pressures on West Club similar to those that have discouraged home-buying on Duke and Roxboro streets north of Interstate 40, Watts-Hillandale resident and activist Tom Miller said in one email.
And in weighing the issue, “it is the interests of people who live along Club, people whose lives as neighbors are interwined with mine, that must come first,” Miller added.
Unlike many Durham thoroughfares, Club Boulevard is a city-owned street, meaning city officials can tinker with its width, lane markings and intersections at will, without needing permission from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Politically speaking, a biker/neighborhood quarrel involving Watts-Hillandale is not a contest of equals.
Watts-Hillandale is part of the core constituency of the People’s Alliance, the best-financed and in recent city elections most politically influential of Durham’s big-three political groups. The neighborhood is home to two City Council members – Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel – and two state legislators.
Schewel’s house is on West Club next to one of the proposed neck-downs. In July he told subscribers to the Watts-Hillandale list he’ll be “taking my direction from the neighborhood association’s board of directors.”
“Is there a way to make Club Bouelvard friendlier to both cyclists and pedestrians? I expect there is,” he said. “Would such a plan be worth the wait? That’s what our neighborhood needs to decide.”
But Moffitt noted in a Friday interview that the dispute raises a broader philosophical point, namely “how big is the community that should have the most direct input into a decision.”
He added the council faced the same question earlier this month when it voted, over Schewel’s dissent, to scrap a requirement that a developer extend a trail into the adjoining Woodcroft neighborhood. Woodcroft’s neighborhood association opposed the extension.

Durham has a Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission, which in 2010 wrote officials to urge changes to the neck-down plan.

Panel members “didn’t feel we got a sufficient response on exactly why our suggestions were not considered in the final design,” said the commission's chairman, Erik Landfried.

The commission has invited Ahrendsen and a Public Works Department representative to its meeting Tuesday to brief it on the latest plan and answer questions.

Landfried added that officials appear to have ignored a 2006 policy document, endorsed by the City Council and County Commissioners, that among other things calls for the installation of bike lanes on Club Boulevard.
“Both the state and city are designing roads that are going to be comfortable for a set of users but not all users of the roadway,” Landfried said, alluding to an otherwise unrelated dispute the panel is having with the state DOT. “We feel that needs to change.”
But advisory boards like Landfried’s generally have less influence in Durham policy debates than the do in towns like neighboring Chapel Hill. And no matter the town, in the western Triangle, road planning is one of the issues most likely to inspire elected officials to take a hands-on approach.