Safer streets for cyclists

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 06:10 PM

Seth Vidal was by all accounts a careful, thoughtful and accomplished cyclist – not to mention a young man well-liked by coworkers, neighbors and just about anyone in whom he came in contact.

Only time and the justice system will answer the question of just how he came to be struck from behind by a motorist on Hillandale Road Monday night. Vidal was killed; the driver continued on his way – but eventually turned himself in on Tuesday.

We do know Hillandale Road is described on the city’s “Durham Bike and Hike Map” as a “difficult connection.” That means, the legend on the map explains, “Higher speeds and/or volumes, combined with narrow lanes or other problems for cyclists.”

Other parts of it are labeled as one of those roads “often used by experienced cyclists” – not a recipe for casual riding or bike commuting, for example.

It’s not like Hillandale is a road a cyclist might avoid – it’s one of the few north-south connectors in that area. 

Durham has too many roads like that – unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians.

It’s not because, let us hasten to note, city leaders today aren’t trying to make this city more hospitable to bikers and walkers. But more and more people are turning to those modes of transportation as the cost of auto transportation deters some and the desire to do less environmental damage lures more and more people to minimize their use of cars.

The city was recognized in 2010 as a bicycle-friendly community. But the award was for the lowest level granted by the League of American Cyclists, and while it acknowledge progress  made, it underscored what work lies ahead to reach higher levels.

New street projects regularly include bike lanes or wide shoulders to help separate cyclists and motor vehicles. Along West Main Street by the Duke East Campus, for example, city and state transportation officials worked together to reconfigure traffic lanes so that when the bridge over Campus Drive is replaced and the street reopens, cyclists will have smoother sailing.

But, as Dale McKeel, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator puts it, “we’ve got those roads all over the place like Academy” (an especially narrow, high-traffic stretch with many cyclists and pedestrians going to and from Duke’s West Campus) and “there’s no quick fix.”

Meanwhile, McKeel says, we can ramp up traffic enforcement to protect cyclists and stress education – not just for motorists but for cyclists.  “I’ve seen cyclists on Hope Valley Road wearing dark clothing riding in the wrong direction at 10 p.m. – and that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

What’s especially disheartening, he noted, is that “Seth was not that guy…he was one of those cyclists that did obey the rules of the road.”

It would be a fair legacy for Vidal if we used his tragic death as a reason to redouble our efforts to make city streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.