Durham is in the beginning stages of implementing its Bike+Walk plan adopted in 2017. The plan was meant to update and combine previous plans from over a decade ago with a stronger focus on safety to encourage bicycling and walking. About 10 miles of roads were identified in 2018 as priorities for new bicycling infrastructure and the city has published preliminary designs for what we can expect to see for each of the projects. This collection of projects is one of the first real tests of whether Durham is going to treat bicycling as a serious form of transportation going forward and protect the people using it.
The best way we can evaluate these projects against the goals of the Bike+Walk plan is to examine whether they are adhering to the best practices demonstrated by other cities. Durham is not the first American city to attempt to improve bicycling infrastructure and therefore has the benefit of learning from years of experience that professionals across the country have acquired through their own implementations.
These lessons and best practices were codified by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, or simply NACTO, in their Urban Bikeway Design Guide, first published in 2011 and updated over the years. The authors of the Bike+Walk plan referenced this guide and stated that it should be continuously used for any design efforts going forward. NACTO’s guide makes specific recommendations about design elements that are necessary for the comfort and safety of bicyclists using the facilities. If Durham is going to build a network of bicycling infrastructure that accommodates people of all ages and abilities, we need to adhere to these principles.
The 10 projects featured on the city’s website all share similar design decisions that need to be improved on. It is important to note that these are all re-striping projects paid for by a combination of local and federal funds. This means that instead of a complete reconstructing of the street, we are essentially limited to a reprogramming of the lines on the road. However, even more important to note is that NACTO’s guide reveals that even just re-striping the road and introducing low-cost physical elements can dramatically change the feel of the road and increase safety for everyone using it.
The published designs begin the process of reallocating street space by narrowing lanes for traveling cars and introducing bike lanes. Several of the bike lanes, like those on Lakewood Avenue and Raynor Street, are placed directly next to motor vehicle travel lanes while others, like those on Cornwallis Road and Chapel Hill Road, feature fairly wide buffers to give bicyclists some breathing room. Given low enough vehicle speeds and daily volume of traffic, some of these designs would be considered sufficient to provide a level of comfort that would be acceptable by the average bicyclist. However, all of these roads have posted speed limits of 25mph or higher, the speed at which NACTO begins to stress that bicyclists need to be physically separated from car traffic. Physical separation is critical at these speeds because the risk of a serious injury or fatality if a cyclist is struck increases significantly. If the goal of expanding the bicycle network is to promote bicycling as a mode of transportation then the safety and comfort of people in the bike lanes should be the focus.
The 10 Projects broken down by managing entity and speed limit
City Managed Roads
NCDOT Managed Roads
There are minimum requirements for how much road width you need to introduce physical protection elements. Studies also reveal that narrower lane widths promote slower driving speeds, which leads to safety benefits for all users. And more importantly, narrowing the travel lanes gives the engineers more room to introduce physical protection elements for the bike lanes. Therefore all of the designs should feature 10’ driving lanes, as opposed to the proposed 11’ lanes, so more of the street space can be allocated to bike lanes and elements to physically protect them.
Designs are always impacted by local considerations but at the very minimum they should be adhering to the NACTO standards. And for all the bicycle improvements we’re being asked to consider in 2018, that means we should be adding physical separation. This way anyone in Durham who wants to ride a bike on these roads can feel safe doing so. If there is a shortage of funding to bring any of these projects into compliance with the NACTO standards, then we should be demanding to know the cost of introducing protected bike lanes. The public needs to know the dollar amount so citizens and City Council can make an informed decision and allocate the necessary funding to achieve compliance with NACTO standards and provide residents with a safe and accommodating bicycling network that Durham can be proud of.
What you can do
The city is hosting a meeting this Saturday, September 22nd, at the Whitted School from 10am to 1pm. It’s a drop-in style meeting so you can show up anytime during the three hour session to review the designs and share your thoughts with city planners and engineers. The most effective thing you can do is show up in person and make your voice heard.
We think it’s particularly important that the bikes lanes be protected and if we demand to know the cost of doing so, we are confident that decision makers will be able to find the funding to make truly safe bicycling infrastructure a reality in Durham. All of the projects at the meeting have design speeds of 25mph or over and therefore standards dictate that bicyclists be physically separated from car traffic.