Durham DOT director Mark Ahrendsen gets necked down at the BPAC Club Blvd meeting

Mark Ahrendsen looked a little uncomfortable last night as he answered some tough questions about the W. Club Blvd neck down project.

Not much new was learned. The story as I told it before is roughly accurate. Ahrendsen insists that the BPAC’s concerns about the impact of neck downs on cyclists (which were presented to him in writing in 2010) weren’t “ignored;” instead, they were “considered” and then discarded, since the specific examples mentioned in the letter weren’t feasible to implement. Ahrendsen, of course, didn’t tell that to the BPAC at the time. BPAC chair Erik Landfried appeared frustrated by the fact that Ahrendsen ruled out the specific examples rather than responding to the more crucial general observation that cyclists deserved some attention in the project.

According to Ahrendsen, this whole thing is now on the WHHNA. There’s no facility for any of it to be revisited by his department at this point unless the WHHNA changes its mind. No amount of public input from any other community will be considered. Ahrendsen has presented two options to the WHHNA: neck downs or scrap the thing and start over – and his sole concern is to implement whichever of those options they choose. Ahrendsen threw out “three years” in describing how long it might take to implement a revised project should WHHNA change its mind now.

As I’ve never observed the process of such street designs before, I found this shocking; the concerns of the neighborhood in which a street runs surely must be important, but considering those desires in a vacuum when constructing a plan that impacts motorists and cyclists from other neighborhoods is insane. As far as I’m aware, last night’s BPAC meeting is the first time the general public outside of the WHHNA was invited to discuss this plan with Ahrendsen, and as was made clear it’s now far too late to do anything about it.

Even though it’s been thirteen years since the original study, and it’s been eight years since Club was identified as an important road for cyclists, the assumptions and implementation goals of the original plan have never been revisited. A public works employee (whose name I didn’t catch) described all of the engineering challenges associated with installing neck downs (of which there are apparently many) and offered insights into the requirements he was given (which amounted to, basically, put in neck downs). Federal regulations have changed since the original study, and the implementation details of the neck-downs were modified to support those, but the fundamental design elements have remained unmodified. No study which considers the needs of cyclists has ever been performed. The public works employee was not instructed to consider engineering any design features to aid cyclists, and so he did not.

My take is that Ahrendsen is looking to dump this hot potato on the WHHNA to avoid any direct responsibility himself. I suspect that he understands the design isn’t ideal, but he doesn’t want to be the guy that slows down “their” project any further. The WHHNA is who he’s out to appease, and by placing it in their lap, if there are problems down the road, they are the ones responsible for accepting the plan.

It looks to me, quite frankly, like cowardice. If Ahrendsen is supposed to take the transit needs of the entire community into consideration, he’s clearly failing to do that. In this fight, it seems as if cyclists have no advocate.

Furthermore, I think the WHHNA is well on its way to becoming reviled by some cyclists. It seems as if no discussion of Club can occur without somebody bringing up the death of Seth Vidal. The WHHNA board’s endorsement of an anti-cyclist road design in close proximity to that incident certainly appears callous (or at the very least tone deaf), a point which one commenter mentioned last night.

If you live in WHH, I urge you to contact your board and express your concerns. Neck downs are actively dangerous. Do not let your neighborhood be perceived as so hostile to the needs of cyclists. Demand a better plan that works for everybody.

Somebody at the BPAC meeting last night made a suggestion so simple that I can hardly believe it was discarded in favor of this monstrosity: why not simply add pedestrian crossings with triggered stoplights? My suspicion is that the economics of such things didn’t work out in 2001, because I can’t fathom any way in which neckdowns could be considered preferable to anybody. I’ve seen these dedicated pedestrian lights sprout up in the intervening years and they’re excellent solutions (see, for example, Murray Ave near the Museum of Life+Science).

The budget for the Club neckdowns is $350,000; I wonder how many triggered pedestrian crossings you can buy for $350,000?

Maybe somebody from the WHHNA should ask that question of Mark Ahrendsen.

Tonight, the BPAC will meet to discuss the future of West Club Blvd

This evening, at 7 p.m., the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Board will meet at City Hall to discuss the redesign of West Club Blvd. The current plan (previously discussed here) would add neck-downs and choke cyclists into the travel lane – an outcome which few people seem to believe is ideal, but some WHNNA residents seem to feel is better than the status quo for pedestrians. The BPAC, it should be noted, is solely an advisory board with no authority to impact policy directly; rather, they can make recommendations that the city is encouraged to follow (but is free to ignore).

Since my previous blog post, the neckdown plan has been the subject of an article at newsobserver.com and an editorial in the Herald-Sun. In its editorial, the H-S specifically endorses re-examining the project:

In an email Gronberg reported, Councilman Steve Schewel, who lives in Watts-Hillandale, mused “Is there a way to make Club Boulevard friendlier to both cyclists and pedestrians? I expect there is. Would such a plan be worth the wait?”

As much as we sympathize with the neighborhood’s impatience, we think the answer is yes.

In addition to the newspapers weighing in, there’s also a response from Bike Durham which (unsurprisingly, seeing as how “bike” is in the name of the group) encourages the city to reconsider:

Bike Durham would like the city to align streets designs with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plans. In the case of West Club Boulevard, this means revisiting and likely updating the design to meet the needs and safety concerns of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

The BPAC is encouraging people to attend the meeting and provide input. Mark Ahrendsen, director of the Department of Transportation, is expected to be there.

Revived neckdown plan could make West Club Blvd a nightmare for cyclists

In 2001*, somebody had a plan. A plan to “calm” traffic on West Club Boulevard.

That plan called for neckdowns. Neckdowns (also known by many other names, my favorite of which is probably “elephant ears”) are curb extensions that intentionally narrow a road. These extensions are intended to cause motorists to slow down, and they also reduce the width of road which pedestrians must traverse when crossing to the other side of the street.

The plan was created in response to a request from the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association (WHHNA) to make the street safer for pedestrians.

At no time were the needs of cyclists considered in the process, nor was making the road safer for cyclists ever an objective. To be fair, there were fewer cyclists on Durham streets 13 years ago, and cyclist needs weren’t very well considered back then in general, so if nothing else it’s unsurprising that they were excluded from the design.

For whatever reason, things got delayed, and eventually the funding for the project disappeared. The plan stalled out in the mid 00’s.

But that’s not where Durham’s neckdown story ends.

No, based on the observations of that initial study, neckdowns seemed like just the ticket in another part of town with traffic woes: Anderson St. Although there wasn’t any funding to do a proper study of the impact on Anderson, there was funding for construction (!), and the city figured the findings for Club were good enough.

So they necked that sucker down. They necked it down real good.

If you look at Anderson these days, the remnants of that decision are still visible, but the street has been entirely reworked since the original deployment.

See, as mentioned above, cyclists were never considered in the original design for Club. Anderson was, even 7 years ago, a very heavily used cycling route. It had street parking on both sides of the road, but the parking was seldom fully utilized, and the wide street was a relatively safe connector for cyclists. The plans for Anderson, the designers realized, had to include some kind of concession for cyclists.

The concession chosen was to leave gaps between the neckdowns and the curb, through which cyclists were expected to ride.

Well, the plan was implemented, and it was pretty much a disaster. The foliage in the islands promptly died, the gaps proved too narrow for cyclists to navigate (and quickly filled with debris besides), and average speeds dropped by less than 1 MPH. Cyclists had to swerve into and out of the travel lane to pass through the neckdowns, a maneuver which is fraught with peril and a cause for a great deal of concern for anybody wishing to ride the road.

Basically, the Anderson project was a complete failure, and many of the neckdowns were eventually removed (at great expense) in 2009. At the time, Kevin Davis broke down the situation on his blog, Bull City Rising.

Anderson in its current incarnation does take the needs of cyclists into consideration; the remaining neckdowns are no longer placed directly across from each other, and proper bike lanes have been added to most of the street. Due to the staggered design, there’s enough room for cyclists to avoid the neckdowns while remaining within the lines of the bike lane. It’s still unclear whether the neckdowns actually do anything to calm traffic, but at least they aren’t actively pushing cyclists into cars. The foliage is still dead too, but whatever.

In light of the Anderson experiment, imagine my surprise when the original Club plan rose from its slumber – unaltered from the original vision.

The man with that plan is Mark Ahrendsen, Director of the Durham Transportation Department. Ahrendsen is now blazing ahead with the decade-old scheme, and rumor has it that the WHHNA is all aboard. Here’s an image from the 2013 draft plans for the project (you can peruse the entire document if you have access to the BPAC yahoo! group):

 

 

This shows the intersection with Alabama, and the plan calls for similar structures at a total of four intersections. There will be no bike lanes, and street parking will be maintained on both sides.

It’s pretty obvious that there’s no room for cyclists in this plan to do anything but swerve out into the middle of the travel lane, right at the point where the street is at its narrowest on both sides. Unlike Anderson, there’s no pretense of allowing cyclists to ride to the right of the structures (look at the extra curbs on the corner), and even worse they’re on both sides of the intersection, squeezing cyclists down twice per cross street.

Now, do you know the greatest irony? In 2006 (five years after the initial study of Club) Durham adopted a comprehensive bicycle transportation plan which makes note of the fact that Club is a major cycling route and actually specifies that Club should have bike lanes. And yet, this zombie plan from the early 00’s (hey plan, have you heard that sweet new Postal Service album yet?) is back from the dead and overriding subsequent, more considered approaches to transit.

What, exactly, has come over the city here? Why do they want to do something to make Club, a road that they’re supposed to be improving, actively hostile for cyclists? Why has the plan not been modified in light of the similar implementation on Anderson, which failed to even achieve the desired calming results?

Way back in 2010, when this project bubbled back to the surface, the BPAC drafted a letter in opposition to the current plan which it sent to Ahrendsen. The BPAC letter provided some well considered constructive criticism, and it suggested several ways that neckdowns could be implemented without harming cyclists.

That advice was ignored.

So, this is the part where I defend the WHHNA, just a little bit, because although they’re apparently on board with this plan, they’ve not been given much choice. At this juncture the plan is being presented as the only option, and the WHHNA has been waiting over a decade for something to happen. Apparently, this is a “use it or lose it” scenario: the choice is to either take the plan that Ahrendsen has placed on the table, or take nothing at all. Having waited so long, I can understand why they’d just take what they can get.

To his great credit, a WHHNA representative reached out to the bike and ped mailing list, and has proven very receptive and sympathetic to the (many) concerns BPAC members have with the project. But reading the tea leaves, it seems unlikely to me that the WHHNA is going to change its mind on this one. They want something done, and by god, this is something.

What I’m kind of perplexed by here are the actions of Mark Ahrendsen and/or other city representatives who have decided to continue this project. Why has Ahrendsen chosen to revive this project without accepting any input? Why has he not considered the objectives of the comprehensive cycling infrastructure plan? Why did he not respond to the BPAC’s objection? Why has he presented this as the only possible plan? And, if this isn’t coming from him directly, where exactly is it coming from?

Erik Landfried, chair of the BPAC, has invited Ahrendsen to the August 19 meeting of the BPAC to discuss this issue.

As of now, it’s unclear as to whether Ahrendsen plans to attend.

 

* NB: Some of the exact chronology is uncertain to me. Most of these details come from my own memory and accounts on the BPAC mailing list, so there might be some inaccuracies.

Riding a bike around I-85 in northwest Durham sucks

So I had an adventure yesterday: I had to go to a location on Hillandale Road (north of I-85).

I’m going to tell you right now, this part of Durham is an unmitigated disaster to ride in. It’s horrible. I don’t have much cause to go up there with frequency, which is good, because if I did I’d probably go insane.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: I-85 makes a huge wall up there, which is pretty much impenetrable to cyclists. All of your options are bad.

drawn_on_screenshot

I was trying to get from around Brightleaf Square (not visible in that map – it’s further to the right and down) up to the blue circle. For the sake of convenience let’s just assume you’re starting around Elmo’s on 9th Street (which is easy to get to from Brightleaf).

So, pop quiz hotshot: how would you go about getting up to the blue circle? Note: the red circles labeled 1, 2, and 3, are the three closest ways to penetrate I-85.

The intuitive answer is that you could take Hillsborough Rd to Hillandale Rd. and cross 85 at the “2”. No problem, right? Well, here’s the problem: Hillandale Rd. absolutely sucks:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:03:58Being situated where it is and being one of the few ways to breach I-85, Hillandale Rd. gets heavy usage, and traffic can get pretty gnarly. Look at how narrow that road is! In my experience, when presented with this kind of scenario a lot of people will try to pass cyclists in incredibly dangerous ways as quickly as they can, leaving little clearance.

I will not ride on that stretch of Hillandale Rd. again, regardless of how tempting those straight lines look on Google Maps. The road is a failure of planning and it does a huge disservice to NW Durham that it’s like this. It’s not just bad for cyclists, either – you’ll notice there isn’t even a sidewalk!

How do you avoid that stretch of Hillandale, then? I ended up doing this:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:13:47

There’s a whole lot of WTF going on there to do it, but I managed to avoid Hillandale completely, so yay bonus points for that. The good news is that most of these side streets have low speed limits and are really easy to ride on. However, check out that section of Guess that gets you past I-85:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:18:01Luckily you’re not on that mess long, but ugh.

Just for the sake of completeness, this is what 1) above looks like:Screenshot from 2014-07-01 16:25:26

… um, yeah, about the same.

This is roughly equivalent to the way Southpoint used to be. That particular SNAFU was addressed by adding a multi-million dollar bridge to get past the I-40 wall.

What’s the solution for this mess in NW Durham? I don’t know if anybody is even seriously talking about it. I lurk on the BPAC mailing list where such problems are perennial sources of discussion, but if there’s any real, solid, practical plan to tear down the I-85 wall for cyclists I sure haven’t heard about it.

It’s crime season again on the ATT!

As always, during the warmer months, trail usage picks up, and with it so does the crime.WRAL reports that there are three victims of attacks over the past week; this is following an apparent homicide on one of the ATT spur trails last month.

Maybe the most disturbing part of the latest trend is that these thugs aren’t just looking for money, they’re out for lolz, beating the crap out of unsuspecting citizens just because they think it’s funny:

On Thursday, a man told police he was riding his bike south on the trail from Otis Street about 12:30 p.m. when a teen punched him in the face and knocked him off his bicycle. The teen said nothing and didn’t try to rob him.

This sounds like what’s known as “the knockout game” (which is also, as wikipedia helpfully informs me, called “polar-bear hunting” when referring to white victims). The game is played by finding an unsuspecting citizen and then beating them up, which doesn’t sound so much like “playing a game” as it sounds like “being a sociopath.”

In its continued ineptitude with respect to managing safety on the trail, the city hasn’t done anything of note to address such crime problems since I first wrote about the issue last summer.

I’ve got a few pieces of advice for anybody looking to use the ATT:

  1. Avoid the trail between Elmira Park and Otis Street. Almost every instance of assault or homicide is within a mile of this very specific area. I’ve never even seen a cop on this stretch (maybe they’re scared, too?), and from my perspective you’re better off fighting traffic than thugs.
  2. If you really feel like taking your life in your own hands and decide to ride through that area, for the love of god take a gopro with you (well concealed) so you can catch your attackers on camera.
  3. Citizens can’t legally take firearms on the trail without a concealed carry license, but there’s nothing that says you can’t take a bicycle lock, and I reckon the right lock might come in handy in a pinch. I swap out my U-lock for one of these guys whenever I have to head that way:
  4. Write to the city council and tell them to actually do something tangible about this shameful state of affairs.

It’s bike month!

Dear readers, did you know that we’ve entered national bike month? This is an annual bicycle awareness program that runs through May. Durham is participating, with a few events scheduled for this weekend:

  • A bike parade, which is a component of the much larger “Thanksgiving in Spring” event. The parade itself runs from 2-3 on Saturday, starting at Central Park, and participants are encouraged to deck out their rides in creative designs.
  • The ATT Bridge Celebration Bike Ride, a free event (but with registration required) to celebrate the opening of the I-40 bridge and the completion of the Durham portion of the ATT. There are 15 and 30 mile versions of the ride, which starts at noon on Sunday.
  • The “Cruiser Ride” will be held on Monday at 7 p.m. starting at the CBC Plaza.

The full schedule for the rest of the month is available on the BPAC web site.

Personally, I try to live every month like it’s bike month, and I hope you guys find time to get out there and ride while the weather is good. It looks like it might finally stop tornadoing for a few days!

Happy Earth Day!

Inspired after reading about Duke’s “Unpark Yourself” Earth Day “alternative commute” challenge, I decided to grab a selfie on the way to work this morning:

 

My morning ride doesn’t normally take me through Duke Gardens, but I figured that’s about the best place in Durham to take a picture this time of year.

Did I actually decide wear green because of Earth Day? Would you believe me if I said no?

The ATT bike/ped bridge over I-40 is finally open

A note from councilman Don Moffitt to the bike and ped mailing list

Marvin Williams just announced that the bridge is now officially open.

Yay!
Don Moffitt
Long time readers of durham.io will note that this bridge is famous mostly for being horribly late and very much over budget, having originally been scheduled for completion last July and having already received a “mission accomplished” style ribbon cutting ceremony last October. I’ve posted about its delays no less than five times (here and here and here and here and here…) and probably more, but at some point I just lost count.
Anyway, cyclists and pedestrians rejoice! This is the final missing piece required to hook the trail up to Southpoint mall (and indeed, all the way to the Chatham County line), so downtown residents are now able to bike or ped all the way down there on the trail (and vice versa).

EDIT: official announcement from durham dot gov.

Hit-and-run driver convicted and sentenced

WRAL is reporting that Maceo Christopher Kemp Jr. has been found guilty of felony hit-and-run and driving with a revoked license. Kemp was responsible for last year’s collision which claimed the life of Seth Vidal, a local cyclist and prominent member of the open source software community.

Kemp’s license had been revoked due to a prior DWI, yet he chose to operate his vehicle. He’s going to do 12-24 months minus time served, which means 6-18 months remain.

Kemp’s attorney claimed that he was neither speeding nor intoxicated at the time of the collision.

Hotel development plans would close parts of Holland St. pedestrian mall

I first came across this one via a mailing list; apparently the developers of a hotel at 315 E. Chapel Hill St. want to acquire the alleyway by Seven Stars Cycles from the city and convert it to a patio. I’ll let Seven Stars explain:

 Some folks want to turn the building across the alley into a new restaurant and boutique hotel. Which is fine. However, they’ve applied to close this alley in order to construct a private, raised, outdoor dining area that, at it’s highest, will create an almost nine foot retaining wall in the middle of the space. The current space was designed and constructed in the late 1960’s at the same time the fantastically modern 315 E Chapel Hill St structure was built. It is one of the only designed pedestrian spaces in downtown Durham and contrary to many people’s opinions, heavily used and enjoyed and a hot spot for downtown photographers, both amateur and professional. City Council must consider whether this closure is contrary to the public interest in making their decision at their October 7th (7PM) meeting. You can attend this public hearing and voice your opinion about the importance of saving this historic alley.

This is especially relevant to Seven Stars, since their storefront happens to be situated on the alley:

Well, you may have noticed that Oct 7 has come and gone. Prior to the Council Meeting, the city/county planning department stated (quoting an email):

the City Manager’s office is recommending that case SC1300001, the proposed closing of Holland Street, be referred back to the administration, in order to ensure additional public input prior to City Council consideration.

… which the Council agreed to.

So, what’s next for SC1300001? The planning department has scheduled an “Urban Design Studio” for 18:00 next Tuesday, October 22, at 315 East Chapel St.:

The goal for this studio is to provide an opportunity for public input on the future of Holland Street. The event will include brainstorming and visioning exercises to engage stakeholders in identifying goals and alternative designs for the continued use of Holland Street. The results of the studio will be used to develop a plan that ensures continued public enjoyment of Holland Street and balances all stakeholder interests.
So, if you’ve got any particular attachment to this alleyway, you might want to show up and let them know what you think.