Opinion

Gearing up for bike, pedestsrian improvements

I suspect we’ve all seen this scene in Durham:

A bicyclist is chugging doggedly uphill, pedaling furiously, with impatient motorists backing up behind him or her. Finally — sometimes finally is after mere seconds — the front motorist weaves into the oncoming traffic lane, double-yellow-line be damned. The car zips around the cyclist, cutting so close speeding back into the right-hand lane that the cyclist is nearly forced off the road.

Too many times in recent years, an episode like that or in another high-danger zone — intersections, narrow streets, high-volume multi-lane roads — a cyclist encounters either a vehicle or just a mishap caused by the dangerous terrain. In the six years ending in 2013 there were 273 bicycle crashes in our city.

You need not be on a bike to face a harrowing time on city streets and highways. We may have nearly 550 miles of sidewalk in this city, but we still have very busy stretches where narrow roads are flanked by no sidewalk at all. Two that I find especially scary as a drive them — and especially on those times when I’ve jogged on them — are Academy Road from the Duke University West Campus to Old Chapel Hill Road, and Shannon Road in the South Square area.

Despite the risky areas, Durham is doing better than many cities in providing for cyclists and pedestrians in a culture that for generations has revered the automobile and focused transportation infrastructure on moving as many of them as efficiently as possible, with little regard for those on two feet or two wheels. We’ve been designated a Bronze Level Bicycle Friendly Community -- a designation I confess I rolled my eyes at even as I celebrated it in 2010. It has been renewed since then, in 2014, acknowledging our efforts to be truly bike-friendly.

Now, there’s some really good news on the bike-pedestrian front. The final draft of the Durham Bike+Walk Plan is online at http://www.durhambikewalkplan.com/. The city is encouraging residents to comments on it until April 28. Residents also will be able to comment on a drop-in-style public meeting April 18 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Temple Building, 302 W. Main St.

“Working with consultants from Stantec, Toole Design Group, and Mobycon, the plan is helping identify where bicycle and pedestrian facilities are most critically needed to improve safety, connectivity, and quality of life,” the city said in a news release last week.

The plan is exhaustive and worth a look. It’s hard to summarize, but it lays out the current situation and principles for prioritizing improvements. It offers several dozen first-tier projects to connect sidewalk gaps, improve especially dangerous intersections and the like.

Interestingly, it makes an important economic development argument, always a powerful weapon.

“Remaining competitive has become a major source of interest in and justification for investments in walking and cycling,” the plan says. “Durham competes with Austin, Seattle, Denver, Cambridge, and Nashville for the best cities to live and advance a career.

“One common theme among many of these cities: they are able to attract and retain youthful workers — who want to be in a place where they can forego a car (even if they still own one).

That’s one of many powerful arguments that suggest we are on the right path to be improving our bikeability and walkability.

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